WALLA WALLA — Taking care of a loved one? You have more resources available than you might realize.
The class series “Powerful Tools for Caregivers” will be offered starting Oct. 29, said Mary Cleveland, program coordinator for Walla Walla’s office of Aging and Long Term Care.
The free classes are open to any unpaid family caregiver, caring for an adult, who hasn’t had a class before. Even if you don’t consider yourself a caregiver, the class can provide information and support if you are helping someone.
ALTC holds the class series several times a year. Space is still available at the upcoming class, but there is already a waiting list for the next series, likely to be held in the spring.
A lot of people in Washingon state — estimated at 600,000 — provide unpaid care for another adult.
“Many don’t realize they are family caregivers,” Cleveland said. “You’re not bathing your parent but you are running errands. It’s a gradual path to caregiving. And ‘family’ is defined broadly. It could be a parent, aunt, grandma, friend, a neighbor. You’re taking on a different role.”
A family member can usually ease into the role of caregiver, but they might suddenly be thrust into it. The class helps people step back a bit and examine their previous relationship and new caregiving role.
They might be defining their previous parent/child relationship and moving into a new one, according to Cleveland. Caregivers could find themselves balancing the tasks of one relationship and the emotions of the other.
“You’ve been a great wife for 60 years but being your husband’s caregiver is a whole new job requiring a new set of skills,” Cleveland said.
The classes address the major problems caregivers face and give them specific tools they can use to make their task more manageable, said Lynne Van Horn, family support caregiver program coordinator with ALTC.
Consulting with someone in caregiver services can help you identify personal stress points, burdens and help you think analytically about the situation, said Cleveland.
One important component is stress reduction. Class members learn to identify the early signs of stress before they get to the point of a meltdown.
Another element is communication. Caregivers learn to communicate effectively through practice. They identify needs and concerns, then work on applying communication techniques in challenging situations.
Dealing with emotions is another class component.
“Isolation and depression are very real problems,” Van Horn said.
Failing to appropriately respond to emotions can be damaging to a caregiver and their loved one.
“There can be very serious consequences when you constantly suppress anger and guilt,” she said.
That might lead to what’s called the volcano effect: One day a small thing happens and the caregiver just explodes. The class helps you identify what you’re feeling and learn how to deal with it constructively.
Caregivers are encouraged to set small, achievable goals and then put together a larger action plan. Think about what you can change for the positive, and determine what you can change and what you can’t, suggested Cleveland.
For example, you can’t alter the fact that a person with dementia has the disorder. But you can learn to mitigate its effects. If you realize the person is looking for her mom, who died 60 years ago, you can say, “You’re looking for your mom? Tell me about her. I heard she was a great pie maker.” That way you don’t remind them of their grief to be re-experienced. You’ve steered them toward a positive memory.
“Learn their happy moment stories,” Cleveland said. “You can feel proud you’ve given someone with dementia a happy moment.”
For those concerned that pursuing help is a sign of weakness or “asking for charity,” Cleveland emphasized that caregiver services in general are already paid for by taxes.
There are ways to balance your love for your family and the relaxation that you need to ultimately be more effective as a protector and caregiver.
Self care is important — don’t ignore your needs and dreams. Have something specific to look forward to. Set aside time and energy to include fun in your life. Being well yourself can contribute to a feeling of accomplishment, joy and relaxation, which helps you care for your loved one more empathetically and effectively.