Caring for the Caregiver

by Phil Puotinen

I read an article in the Kansas City Star recently that had some rather astonishing facts.  According to the American Medical Association, elderly care-giving spouses have a 63% higher chance of dying than people their same age who aren’t caring for a spouse.  A study by the American Geriatrics Society found that they are six times more likely to develop dementia themselves compared with people whose spouses don’t have dementia.

If you are a part of the Baby Boomer generation, as many of us are, this means that there is a strong likelihood that one of your parents may be in this situation.  It may even mean that you are a participant in the caregiving.  Worldwide, there are over 35 million people diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.  In the United States, there are over 5.3 million diagnosed and, to bring it even closer to home, in the U.P. there are over 8,000 people diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. There are 10.9 million unpaid caregivers in the U.S. providing care for the 5.3 million persons diagnosed, according to the most recent data from the Alzheimer’s Association.

The Alzheimer’s Association, Upper Peninsula Region of the Greater Michigan Chapter, is committed to providing education and support to caregivers in the Upper Peninsula.  Programs and services are available to help caregivers manage their situations and to help reduce their stress.

One of these programs is the Creating Confident Caregivers Workshop.  These free workshops are offered in partnership with UPAAP, the U.P. Area Agency on Aging.  They are designed to assist persons caring for family members with dementia.  They have been found to reduce stress and to help empower caregivers.  The workshops are two hours long, once a week for six weeks.  They are available at various locations throughout the Upper Peninsula.

Persons participating in the workshops learn strategies to reduce caregiver stress and to learn and practice ways to find time to care for themselves.  These goals are accomplished through:

Gaining information and knowledge – learning more about the illness they are dealing with and how it impacts the person with the disease.  Things as simple as making sure that lighting is adequate or minimizing distractions to allow the person with the illness to be able to focus on tasks more effectively can have a big impact on managing daily activities.

Developing skills – for the complex and often new tasks they need to perform. Learning how communication changes with the progression of the illness, and how to take these changes into account to help the person with the disease maintain a contented, calm and secure life.  The course also hopes to improve self- care skills for the caregiver, which in turn helps to reduce their stress.

Developing an improved outlook or attitude – As the caregiver learns and develops additional skills and knowledge, they become more confident in their role.  As they gain confidence in what they are doing, the tasks become less stressful.

These classes offer an excellent opportunity for caregivers to learn and develop new skills and techniques.  They also offer opportunities for support from other caregivers who share common experiences.

We all can make a difference in the lives of caregivers and the people for whom they are caring.  Caregiving is a demanding job requiring 24-hour-a-day, 7-day-a-week attention.  We can make a difference by keeping in touch with the caregiver. By doing something as simple as making a phone call, or stopping by for a visit, we can offer the caregiver some relief.  The main thing is, let’s not forget the caregiver, or stay away because we don’t know what to do.

Each year, World Alzheimer’s Day is celebrated on September 21st.  This day was established in 1994 as a way to bring awareness to this illness that affects so many people.  It is also a time to recognize the efforts and sacrifice of caregivers, and an opportunity to advocate for greater support and commitment of resources.  This year, celebrate World Alzheimer’s Day by making a commitment to support those you know who are caring for a loved one with Alzheimer’s disease.

For more info. on this or other programs offered by the Alzheimer’s Association, or for more info. on how you can help, contact: Alzheimer’s Association – Greater MI Chapter, UP Region, 710 Chippewa Square, Suite 201, Mqt.,  906-228-3910, 800-272-3900,

Phil Puotinen has a degree in Social Work from NMU and is the Alzheimer’s Association’s U.P. Program Coordinator and Wraparound Facilitator.  Phil and his wife Carol, of Laurium, MI, cared for his dementia-debilitated mother for two years until other medical complications required nursing home care.