By Matt Perry
One of California’s most deeply embedded community aging organizations is responding to the crisis of at-home caregivers with an intriguing model for stressed out, isolated family members.
“We go to the where the people are,” says Andrea Gallagher, president of Senior Concerns, which serves cities in west Los Angeles and eastern Ventura counties from its Thousand Oaks headquarters.
At the heart of this effort is the new Mobile Caregiver Support Center – a small bus loaded with educational materials and staff experts who provide insulated caregivers with answers and hope.
Since launching the center in July, Gallagher and other staffers have visited dozens of community organizations: churches, assisted living facilities, women’s groups, senior centers, Rotary and Kiwanis clubs, even mobile home parks.
Gallagher’s September visit to the Simi Valley Senior Center brought 75 intrigued caregivers. Laurie Dickinson, senior services manager for the site, says the response from caregivers – who are “the least likely to come out” for such events — was overwhelming.
“They all of a sudden realized it was ok to ask for help.”
Stressed caregivers typically struggle to help older adult relatives who have insufficient savings. Caregivers respond to the overwhelming physical, emotional, and financial demands with anxiety, depression and illness – sometimes winding up in the hospital themselves.
Besides materials customized for unique caregiving scenarios – the new caregiver, caring for an adult with dementia, or helping someone recently released from the hospital – the mobile center also includes checklists to evaluate senior care facilities and home care agencies.
Most important, the rolling center transports experts from Senior Concerns: its case managers, senior advocates and legal and financial advisors who all provide free advice.
“One woman came up to us, and came out of the church and just started crying,” says Gallagher. The woman had suffered under the stress of taking care of her husband – recently deceased – telling Gallagher and a colleague “If I’d only known.”
“It’s a difficult place for (people) to be in when ‘Mom lives with me full time, I work, she has no savings, and she won’t come to adult day care,” says Lori Bliss, a case manager and senior advocate for the private, non-profit organization.
Senior Concerns spent a year creating the outreach effort after seeing caregivers were the most acutely affected in its rapidly aging communities.
The agency also provides two staff members at the town’s Goebel Senior Adult Center five days a week.
A staple in the greater Thousand Oaks area for nearly four decades, Senior Concerns supports older adults with senior advocacy, case management, brain fitness, Meals on Wheels, legal and financial help, and its Alzheimer’s Support Center.
It also operates a fee-based adult day center.
The mobile outreach effort echoes cities like Fremont in the Silicon Valley, which has reached out to a wildly diverse immigrant community of older adults by visiting ethnic centers and places of worship.
A senior advocate for the organization says caregiving stories vary in their complexity.
“Remarkable. Spectacular. Or devastating,” says Brenda Birdwell. “Or all of the above.”
Since receiving a grant from the local Area Agency on Aging five years ago to address this growing crisis, Bliss says Senior Concerns has targeted not only care for the caregiver, but especially its heavy toll on families.
She cites one family as an example of the stress and raging emotions involved. An absent father who is now old, frail and living in a mobile home park had nobody to care for him. Adult Protective Services then contacted his son, who had only a tenuous history with the father he now cares for.
“The emotional wounds can resurface that bring up issues that can be difficult to deal with,” says Bliss, “and you have a dependent adult that you can’t (always) rationalize with.”
Last month, Senior Concerns sponsored a lecture series targeting professional caregivers called “From Argument to Agreement” to educate service providers and volunteers to better assist older adults and their families.
Another example of the organization’s robust offerings is its “Boomer BootCamp” lecture series. In its second year, the lectures have addressed critical aging issues like healthy aging and longevity.
Gallagher is quick to laud city officials from Thousand Oaks for their foresight in addressing aging.
A decade ago, Thousand Oaks officials were staring into an uncertain abyss as the city’s senior population was expected to double over two decades and tally 25% of its estimated population of 125,000 by 2020.
City officials then embarked on a plan to prepare for an aging future, and an all-volunteer committee submitted its Senior Adult Master Plan to the city council in 2009.
The plan addressed the most pressing problems for older adults: transportation, housing, healthcare, volunteerism, recreation, and the pressing need for clear information on how to access available aging services.
Gallagher says that all this attention to support the caregiver helps everyone.
“The reality is, once you care for the caregiver, you’re caring for the care receiver.”