Local program offers break for Alzheimer
While the medical community is still unraveling the mystery of what causes Alzheimer's disease and how best to treat it, one thing is a certainty – the disease lays a heavy burden on family members and friends caring for loved ones.
State health statistics show that nearly 42,000 West Virginians have Alzheimer's disease, that 70% of those with the disease live at home, and that family and friends provide almost 75% of homecare for their loved ones with Alzheimer's.
Last year, the West Virginia Legislature took steps to address the needs of caregivers, setting aside money for Family Alzheimer's In-home Respite (FAIR) programs statewide.
Morgan County's own Senior Life Services offers this program to county residents, who can qualify for low-cost or free help for their loved ones diagnosed with Alzheimer's.
Caring for caregivers
Unlike other Alzheimer's program, FAIR is a direct service for the caregiver instead of the patient. In-home workers from the Senior Center with special dementia training can offer relief for the caregiver for up to eight hours a week.
"It's for the person caring for the Alzheimer's patient, so the caregiver can go get a haircut, go shopping or visit with friends. They can know their family member is with a person trained in Alzheimer's care," said Patrick McBee, Outreach Coordinator at the Senior Center.
The program is built around the recognition that even the most willing and loving caregivers need a break from the constant physical and psychological demands of caring for a spouse, parent, close relative or life partner with the progressively debilitating dementia.
"We can do it however they want – a full day, two four-hour shifts, whatever they need," McBee said.
While the program's in-home care aids can't dispense medicine, they are trained in first aid, CPR and Alzheimer's care. Mostly, the aids just keep an Alzheimer's patient company for a few hours while caregivers take a breather, said McBee.
"We watch TV with them, play cards with them, go through family scrapbooks with them so the caregiver can get a break," he said.
"When it's a husband or wife that's caring for a loved one, sometimes they need to step away to catch their breath," said McBee. It is widely shown that the health of caregivers often suffers as they provide help to their loved ones. Having help and a chance to socialize is an important factor in keeping caregivers healthy, McBee said.
Even though the respite program offers a break to caregivers, ultimately the service is a benefit to Alzheimer's patients, too. Studies show that people with the disease live longer if they can stay in their homes in the care of loved ones, McBee confirmed. Caring for caregivers can help make that happen.
"These are people that raised us, that we looked up to in the community. They deserve to be in their homes for as long as we can possibly keep them there," said McBee.
Who can use it?
Any resident of Morgan County who is an unpaid caregiver for a person officially diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease can take advantage of the FAIR program.
McBee said that there are currently fewer than ten families enrolled, but he knows there are many more caregivers that could benefit from the service.
Caregivers should first call McBee at the Senior Life Services. He will schedule a visit to the person's home, and do an initial interview to determine if the Alzheimer's patient is also eligible for other care or aid programs that offer in-home meals, housework and transportation.
"Often they're not aware of the programs that are out there for them," McBee said.
While the respite program isn't universally free, McBee said it could be available at no cost if the family's income is low enough. Even on a sliding scale, he said the most someone would have to pay for the in-home visits would be $12 an hour, which is far cheaper than any other in-home nursing care for Alzheimer's patients.
According to McBee, the state Legislature didn't allocate enough money to make the program free for everyone, but there is every indication that the FAIR program will be around for many years as the state's average age rises and the need for Alzheimer's respite continues to grow. "Most people in the FAIR program move on to another program down the line. We can be there to upgrade the service when they need more help," McBee said.
For more information about the FAIR program and other services for senior citizens, contact Patrick McBee, Outreach Coordinator at Senior Life Services at 304-258-3096.