Program helps caregivers cope

Goal is to ease stress for adults who care for their aging parents

February 28, 2000|By Joan Jacobson | Joan Jacobson,SUN STAFF

Long before dawn, Pamela Perkins prepares her 88-year-old mother for a day alone in their Rosedale home.

She washes and changes the sheets on her mother's hospital bed, sets out her five medicines and makes sure the remote control and portable phone are close to her wheelchair.

By 6: 45 a.m., Perkins heads to the first of her two jobs. Later in the morning, her mother, Mildred Clarke, will receive a Meals on Wheels lunch, followed by a visit from another daughter.

Their lives are complicated, tiring and an act of mutual love.

"I wouldn't [take] a million dollars for her," Clarke said of Perkins, the youngest of her six children. "She takes care of me like I took care of her when she was a baby."

Perkins is among the estimated 25 million American adults who care for a member of the country's rapidly growing elderly population, according to the Baltimore County Department of Aging.

Five years ago, the county -- which has 138,000 senior citizens, more than any other county in Maryland -- began a program to provide support to local caregivers.

"We became aware that family members were under a lot of stress," said Barbara Korenblit, who runs the Caregivers Program. "Families were often feeling stressed to the breaking point. Depression was common. Some needed mental health treatment themselves."

The initiative had modest beginnings but has grown significantly. In its early days, the program was promoted with a newsletter, the Caregiver Connection, which had about 200 subscribers. Today, 3,500 copies are printed six times a year.

The newsletter includes recommendations on books to read and offers health care advice and tips for helping the homebound get on the Internet. It also promotes conferences run by the Department of Aging to help caregivers cope.

The conferences have become an important part of the program.

They keep caregivers up to date on legal issues such as granting power of attorney and having a living will prepared.

The Caregivers Program has produced a handbook, "Caregiving from Near and Far," and has begun offering workplace sem- inars for public and private employers.

Korenblit describes the typical person caring for an elderly relative as "a woman in her 40s who has a job, has children who is the primary caregiver. Seventy-five percent of caregivers nationally are women."

Perkins, 47, invited her mother to live with her five years ago when her health began to fail.

Today, Clarke is physically incapacitated from a stroke and other problems, but has a quick wit and offers easy praise for her daughter.

Confined to her wheelchair and a hospital bed, her world is reduced to a small bedroom decorated with family photographs, a picture of Jesus Christ, a stereo that allows her to listen to her favorite gospel music, a television and a microwave oven.

"I'm not lonesome at all," she says. "I just wish I could move myself a little better than I do. I don't want everything done for me," said Clarke, who raised her children in Pigtown while working as a domestic.

Her daughter said she's physically exhausted after working two jobs -- one as a counselor for a city school and the other teaching at Sylvan Learning Center -- but added it's worth the effort to have her mother living with her.

"My mom gives me support. She is the light of my day when I come home," said Perkins, whose eyes fill with tears as her mother talks about how grateful she is.

"My mom would look at it as an extra burden," said Perkins. "But it's just a part of everyday living."

To register for seminars for caregivers, call the Baltimore County Department of Aging at 410-887-2594. Seminars are scheduled for March 16, April 17, May 10 and June 12 at county senior centers.

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