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Powerful Tools for Caregivers: The Gift that Keeps on Giving

A senior African-American man in his 60s sitting at home with adult daughter, in her 30s at the dining room table, drinking coffee. The woman is showing her father something on her mobile phone and they are laughing.

When David received a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s at age 76, a cloud of sorts was lifted. All the questions about memory lapses, balance issues, and uncharacteristic anxiety had a cause. When David and his wife Nancy talked with his health care provider about next steps, the discussion was limited to medications and some home modifications. It concluded with “Make an appointment to see me in six months.”

David and Nancy are managing as best they can with the news.

Their four children are great emotional supports but do so from a geographical distance. The closest lives over one hour away. All their kids have busy lives, with families of their own to raise and demanding jobs but check in regularly by phone and visit when they can.

When David and Nancy shared the diagnosis with friends, things noticeably changed. A lifelong golfer, David is no longer getting calls from friends to join a weekly round of golf. Nancy’s friendships are tapering off as get-togethers become more infrequent. Invitations to social engagements are fading. When they reach out, people are always busy, or phone messages are not returned.

David and Nancy are experiencing stigma. It’s not uncommon for friends, even family, to fade into the background when a dementia diagnosis is shared. Misunderstandings about Alzheimer’s and other dementias abound. And without support, understanding, or direction, it is easy to feel isolated.

“Unfortunately and all too often, I witness and hear stories from people living with dementia—and their caregivers—sharing that they feel isolated and disconnected from their communities,” says Marigrace Becker, MSW, who manages Community Education and Impact at the University of Washington Memory and Brain Wellness Center (MBWC). “They often feel marginalized and excluded from activities they were a part of before the dementia diagnosis.”

David is still David, regardless of the diagnosis. But Nancy, the more outgoing of the two, is starting to experience mild depression because of the change in their social life and friendships. She is also growing anxious about what the future holds, as her mother had lived with Alzheimer’s, and Nancy knows there are going to be more changes ahead.

Aside from family, another bright spot for Nancy is her regular coffee, card games, and weekly walking group at the neighborhood senior center. The senior center also has a social worker on staff. Nancy decided to make an appointment at the encouragement of one of the women she walks with.

In meeting with the social worker, she found the ray of light she’d been hoping for. The social worker listened, asked thoughtful questions, and offered resources and support that would benefit Nancy as a primary care partner.

The resource Nancy is most excited about is the upcoming Powerful Tools for Caregivers workshop series. Powerful Tools for Caregivers classes “help caregivers take better care of themselves while caring for a friend or relative.”

Led by an experienced, trained leader, these workshops provide caregivers with the tools they need for self-care, stress reduction, emotion management, self-confidence, and connecting to local resources.

The class typically meets from 90 minutes to 2½ hours each week over a six-week period. Classes consist of interactive sessions: discussions and brainstorming to help you choose the “tools” you need and put them into action in your life. Each class focuses on education, tips, tools, and skills-building in these key areas:

  1. Taking Care of You
  2. Identifying and Reducing Personal Stress
  3. Communicating Feelings, Needs, and Concerns
  4. Communicating in Challenging Situations
  5. Learning from Our Emotions
  6. Mastering Caregiving Decisions

As an experienced Powerful Tools for Caregivers facilitator, I’ve observed the transformative benefits of this class on participants. Often, family caregivers come to the first class feeling as if they are alone in this journey. After the first session, they recognize they are not alone, and that they are surrounded by others who understand them. The classes are fun, non-threatening, and offer a No Judgment Zone. And we always have snacks whenever I teach a class.

Benefits and outcomes of this evidence-based training include:

  • Increased physical activity, use of relaxation techniques and feeling good about self-care
  • Improved emotions, including reduced anger, guilt, and depression
  • Increased self-efficacy in coping with caregiving demands
  • Increased use of community services and supports

Other positive “side effects” of Powerful Tools for Caregivers I’ve personally witnessed include:

  • Watching new friendships and community develop as meaningful connections are made
  • Benefiting from the other caregivers’ experiences, wisdom, and insights
  • The generous sharing of resources and referrals to professionals, such as attorneys, financial planners, healthcare providers and housing providers
  • Better time management and problem-solving skills
  • A new-found joy in the journey

There is something powerful and empowering about having the right tools. And there’s something even more powerful and empowering about being surrounded by others who have “been there, done that.”

As Nancy shared in her evaluation at the end of the last class, “After taking the Powerful Tools for Caregivers classes, I am so much more confident. Now I have the tools and skills to resolve problems and make tough decisions. I’m healthier and happier too. And I’ve made new friends who truly understand what my husband and I are going through. It’s been a great boost for us both.”

If you are a family care partner or a friend helping care for another, or know someone who is, and haven’t yet participated in a Powerful Tools for Caregivers class, I encourage you to find a class and register today.

To find a Powerful Tools for Caregivers class near you, contact:

  • Community Living Connections—call 1-844-348-5464 (toll-free). Your call and consultation are professional, confidential, and free of charge.
  • Your neighborhood senior center—click here for a list of centers throughout Washington state.

Contributor Michelle Maeda, B.Sc., CMC, is a Certified Care Manager at Aging Wisdom, a graduate of the University of Hawaii, and has worked in social services for 30 years, the past 25 with older adults and their families. “Ohana means family … family is central to my happiness,” shares Michelle. And this is true for her both personally and professionally. Over the years of working with families, Michelle is inspired by their history, resilience, and hope.