Care-givers for elderly get firsthand experience with discomforts of old age

March 02, 1994|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,Sun Staff Writer

Want to know what it's like to walk on painful feet?

Dump a cup of uncooked rice into your shoes.

As you tread gingerly on the grains, you will sense the discomfort that an elderly walker feels with each footstep.

"My feet don't hurt enough," said Jim Rogers as he tested the theory. "You have to encourage them."

Mr. Rogers, who at 65 is caring for his 86-year-old mother, enrolled in a six-session course for those caring for elderly family members. Sponsored by the Bureau of Aging, the course -- "Too Much to Do, Too Little Time, Not Enough Me" -- will deal with health, housing and legal issues facing the elderly and their care-givers.

Sharon Baker, supervisor of client services at the Bureau of Aging, laughed at Mr. Rogers' discomfort and said, "Just be glad we didn't use pea seeds."

Like others in the class, Mr. Rogers has discovered that longevity carries a price that the next generation often bears. He is looking for help.

"We have bouts of cabin fever when I can't get away from her long enough and she can't get away from me at all," Mr. Rogers said of his days caring for his mother at their home in Westminster. "I thought I would start here for some direction."

The first of the two-hour classes last week dealt with the physiology of aging. The class walked on rice, took an unfair hearing test and tried on glasses altered with soap, tape or spots to simulate sight problems common to the elderly.

With fingers taped together, participants tried to write their names or comb their hair. They found heavy vinyl gloves and threading a needle don't go hand in hand.

"Remember how frustrated you are and imagine if you dealt with these problems constantly," Ms. Baker said.

Only 5 percent of the elderly live in nursing homes, she said. About 75 percent of those who need care are living with relatives.

"Often our roles with our parents are reversed," said Ann Allen, bureau coordinator of senior information and assistance.

Care-givers need "a sense of humor and a sense of faith" as they develop an understanding of the problems that affect the elderly, Ms. Baker said.

"Aging is not a disease, but diseases appear more often in older people," she said. "Although practical judgment and creativity often increase, senses decline as the body ages."

Many of those diseases and deprivations contribute to the paranoia, frustration, isolation and grouchiness of the elderly, she said.

"If you become hard of hearing, you might think people are talking about you constantly," she said. "Simple tasks become complicated with many steps for a person experiencing memory loss."

Ms. Baker listed the "mind-boggling" demographics of aging. Census figures say that by 2030 more Americans will be over 65 than under 5. Alzheimer's disease, which destroys the memory, now affects 10 percent of those over 65 and 47 percent of those over 85.

Ms. Baker also discussed the subtleties of ageism and tried to defuse bias against the elderly.

"Age doesn't change how a person thinks and feels," she said. "Universal feelings remain even in a state of confusion."

Pat Kidd, who is caring for her 88-year-old mother, enrolled in the course to learn more about the aging process.

"I want to learn what I can do to help my mother," said Ms. Kidd, who lives in Millers. "I am learning from Mom, but it is hard watching her struggle. I accept her infirmities, but I wonder what I am supposed to do and what restrictions I need to place on her."

Lucy Thomas of Sykesville said she is taking the course to "get a better understanding of what it means to be a care-giver."

Ms. Baker said care-givers should not hesitate to ask for help. "Ask for help and be specific about what you need," she said. "Many resources are available, including adult day care, but there is no perfect answer."

Future classes will deal with legal matters, Medicare and health insurance, housing alternatives, grief and lifestyle changes.

Classes meet at 6:30 p.m. Tuesdays through March 29 at the Emergency Operations Center, 1345 Washington Road, Westminster. Information: 848-4049.

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