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Caring for Caregivers

Arizona’s caregivers prepare for their biggest challenge yet: the Silver Tsunami. Will they be able to handle the wave?

Jimmy Magahern | May 29, 2013, 11:21 a.m.

“The Department of Labor still classifies us as companions, which in effect gives us less benefits than everyone who works under the minimum wage law,” she complains. “People think that we just sit and talk to seniors and visit with them. And maybe back in the ’70s, when that title first came into use, it may have applied. But we are working people; this is our job. We just want to be recognized as professionals.”

The hidden patient

Brett Petersen calls them the “unsung heroes” of the oncoming silver storm.

“Without family caregivers, we would see so many more people in this big boom of seniors going into institutions, or worse,” says Petersen, who works as the director of caregiver services for Duet, a Phoenix nonprofit that connects homebound elders and disabled adults with volunteer caregivers willing to provide friendly visits, do grocery shopping and help with paperwork, computers or light handyman work for a few hours each week.

In operation for 32 years, Duet’s services are now streamlined with an interactive map on its website allowing volunteers to see when and where help is needed (“Mary in Scottsdale needs help getting groceries,” for example) and commit to a visit via email.

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Brett Petersen, Director of caregiver services for Duet.

“We provided over 7,000 rides to doctor’s appointments last year, free of charge,” Petersen says. “Transportation to and from doctor’s offices is a huge service we provide.”

Each year, says Petersen, Duet’s volunteers put in over 42,000 hours of service to nearly 800 homebound adults. But perhaps just as importantly, the organization also offers monthly support groups and respite breaks for the caregivers themselves. This month, the organization hosts a caregivers support group at the Scottsdale Senior Center on June 11 and an online chat for caregivers June 13th and 23rd.

“It can be heart wrenching and frustrating being a senior caregiver, and it’s nice to be able to sit with people who understand,” Petersen says. “We get to share ideas, and it’s amazing the different solutions people come up with to deal with common issues. I’ve heard the neatest ways to calm down a person with Alzheimer’s—ideas that you won’t find in books, only from caregivers who are doing this every day.

“Oftentimes caregivers will keep doing this hard work until the find themselves at a breaking point, where they say ‘I can’t do this anymore,’” he adds. “Our goal is to find them before they get to that point. We can help them with resources and support so that they don’t get to that burn-out point.”

Besst says the DES also offers support services to caregivers, whether it’s training in certain techniques, helping to access government resources or simply sending in a secondary caregiver to give the other a break.

“We actually refer to them as the ‘hidden patient,’” Besst says, “because the role of caregiving does cause stress and can impact the caregiver’s health. So if you don’t support them, and they don’t recognize those risks, pretty soon you’ve got two people who need to be cared for. And more than ever, we need to help these people keep working.”

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