Having a loved one with dementia can be stressful enough. Taking care of one can be exhausting.
The Southwestern Vermont Council on Aging and Rutland Mental Health announced a program Monday that offers free counseling services to people acting as caregivers for family members. The service is available to any unpaid family caregivers age 60 and older, or any family caregivers who are caring for an individual who is age 60 or older. Referrals can be made through SVCOA.
Aaron Brush, one of the coordinators, said there is some leeway on the ages because people in their 50s are increasingly being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and dementia, but the key is that the caregivers are unpaid.
“They’re not doing this for a living,” he said. “They’re doing this on top of whatever else their life is, out of the goodness of their heart.”
The program is not necessarily limited to caregivers of people with Alzheimer’s and dementia, Brush said, but those diseases account for the majority of family caregivers. As such, the most readily available statistics on caregivers concern Alzheimer’s and dementia. Brush said in 2015, 30,000 Vermonters spent a total of 34 million hours taking care of relatives with the two conditions, and that effort took a toll.
“They call our agency, oftentimes they’re overwhelmed,” he said. “They’re burnt out or they’re getting burnt out. ... Most of them are already struggling financially, and they don’t have the means to pay for support.
Brush said a variety of respite care options are available, but that depression is common among family caregivers, and sometimes they need more support than just a break. The program will offer one-on-one counseling services, in the caregivers’ homes if necessary. Brush said the organization is limited to 15 caregivers who will be able to get as many as 12 sessions each in the course of a year.
“It definitely isn’t a lot,” he said. “Rather than try to get a large quantity of caregivers served, we’re trying to provide the highest level of support and counseling we can without stretching too thin. ... It’s going to be on kind of an as-come basis.”
Cinda Donton, who performs the counseling, said caregivers often don’t take good care of themselves and frequently don’t know how to maintain good boundaries with the family members they care for.
“If you’re dealing with people who have dementia, most of us aren’t equipped for that and they don’t know how to be with the person anymore,” she said. “You have to learn a whole new way of interacting with people.”
As an example, Donton said, it’s counterproductive to ask people with memory loss what they did during the day. She said caregivers also tend to get stuck in unnecessary conflicts they can’t find their way out of, and that counseling can help them see the situation more clearly.
Brush said that caregivers often don’t want to seek help.
“It’s kind of like the proud Vermonter thing,” he said. “They’re trying to juggle their own lives and their families. ... They don’t want to ask for help until they’re burnt out, very, very stressed. We want to get to them before they get to that point.”