March 29th, 2022
Pre-pandemic, Denise called her mom three or four times a day to make sure she was okay. If she didn’t pick up the phone, Denise or her sister would drive over. They shopped for their mom and got her where she needed to go.
In March 2020, a perfect storm rolled in: The Covid lockdown and her mom’s rising blood pressure.
“She told me that her blood pressure was really high, and she doesn’t see that well and definitely doesn’t hear that well. In the end, I said I’d be right over,” says Denise, a Troy resident who works full time as an IT professional.
Denise brought her 90-something mom to her house, and she’s been there ever since. Her mother has dementia and requires a catheter that Denise and her husband have learned to change.
Despite having a supportive husband who works remotely from home, Denise felt isolated. She started researching online for organizations that offer support for family caregivers and found the Caregiver Coaching program, which AgeWays runs.
“I felt like, ‘I don’t know what I’m doing.’ I hoped to have someone to brainstorm with, talk to, and feel like there’s a port in the storm,” Denise says. “You’re frustrated, and you don’t know the right things to do.”
After enrolling in the program, Denise was matched with volunteer coach Justine B., who has helped her learn how to talk to her mom without undue frustration and has simply been “an ear at the end of the phone.” The pair talks once a week.
“The thing is, the person isn’t the same person,” says Justine. “They’re so changed and you can’t relate to them in the same way. It causes quite a bit of confusion and second guessing about how to communicate appropriately and how to reach the person.”
Justine, an Ann Arbor resident, has a background in gerontology. She figured she could be helpful to someone else, so took the training to become a caregiver coach. She likes the flexibility – she and Denise can meet whenever they like – and the support provided by AgeWays.
“The emphasis is on trying to educate and empower coaches so they can really be helpful, and I can turn to people in the agency if I need guidance,” she says. Justine was a caregiver for her late mother.
The Caregiver Coaching program pairs family caregivers with trained volunteers who can help them navigate resources, offer advice, and be there to listen. Communications are by phone, Zoom, email, and the partners schedule their calls. These partnerships last as long as they want them to last.
The program is funded by the Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Legacy Fund for Caregivers at Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan and Vital Seniors Initiative at Ann Arbor Area Community Foundation. It is available to people who live in Livingston, Macomb, Monroe, Oakland, St. Clair or Washtenaw counties or who takes care of a family member in one of those counties.
“Caregivers are an underserved population who can feel overwhelmed and are often juggling career and family demands in addition to caring for their aging family member,” says Julie Lowenthal, program coordinator. “I think the program empowers caregivers— improving and enhancing the quality of life for both for them and those they care for.”
Caregiver Kathryn of Hartland describes her caregiver coach, Margy Fox, as a godsend.
“I’m a firm believer that at certain points in your life – a higher power, God, whatever you believe in — sends down an angel to help you get through, even if you’ve only known them a short time. I think Margy was one of those,” says Kathryn.
Kathryn, who works as a remote, indirect procurement administrator, emailed Margy a few times when she needed help finding resources and to release some tension. She learned about the Caregiver Coaching program when she called AgeWays for help with her mother, who passed away recently.
Kathryn’s mother, who was 84, suffered from a host of medical problems and had sort of given up. Kathryn and her sister-in-law worked together to help her, but they were exhausted and out of ideas.
“I think what I was looking for was one point of contact who could help me navigate this thing I had no clue about — what to expect, how to find resources. I was in a bit of panic by then because we were tired. We needed people to come in and give us relief,” she says.
In the beginning, Kathryn says, she was vague with Margy because she didn’t really know what she needed. Margy provided resources and suggestions, and “she was willing to share stories of what she went through, and though it wasn’t the same as my story, it helped me feel less isolated.” Margy, she says, talked her off the ledge a few times.
“In my lifetime, I’ve been through therapy a few times and found it helpful,” says Kathryn. “Caregiver coaching is one-on-one contact, a way to bounce off ideas rather than calling 50 places. This person can help me, guide me, or do nothing more than listen to me.”
Margy, a Superior Township resident who became a caregiver coach in June 2020, says if sharing her personal experience of caregiving helps others, she’ll use that tool in her toolbox.
“Having someone say, ‘I’ve done this, and it worked out,’ is really helpful,” she says. “I don’t pretend that I have answers, because I don’t. But it’s the connection. I don’t always feel like I make a big difference to the people I’ve connected with, but I feel I’ve made some difference.”
Margy, a retired nurse, says she would have benefited from a program like Caregiver Coaching when she was a long-distance caregiver for her mother. A doctor can help you with medical issues and even some caregiving ones, but they probably won’t tell you about advance directives or power of attorney. A coach can.
“Our training included a lot of reminders to use resources,” she says. “And remember to take care of yourself as a priority. It’s not just okay; it’s really important. Just reminding someone that they deserve self-care is helpful.”