Selfless devotion

Caregiver Respite Group lead by two volunteer women dedicated to helping others

Tiffany TuellNovember 7, 2012 

Every Tuesday, caregivers have the opportunity to set aside four hours for themselves while their loved one participates in a variety of social activities under the direction and watch of two caring, concerned community members -- Barbara Leath and Jennie Flaherty, who together run the Caregiver Respite Group every Tuesday.

Both women share a passion for helping caregivers and their loved one who are suffering from any form of memory loss. Although the group originated through Valley Caregivers, they had to suspend the program due to budget reasons. Now Leath and Flaherty voluntarily run the program themselves. If either one is unable to attend the program, Mike Perreira or one of his Operation Lost and Found team members volunteer. Operation Lost and Found team puts tracking bracelets on those suffering from a memory disorder or even Autism and helps locate those individuals if they are lost.

However neither Flaherty or Leath miss many days. Flaherty, who has been volunteering with the group since February, is a retired social worker who worked for St. Agnes Adult Health Center.

"Our population was primarily those with Alzheimer's and dementia and I just really like those folks," Flaherty said. "I worked with a lot of families in Fresno and there's just a huge need for caregivers to get a break. Studies have shown it's such an overwhelming task if you don't have support."

Leath has been with the group since it began in 2010. It all began when she started attending an Alzheimer's support after her mother was diagnosed with the disease. At the meeting, the idea for a respite group was brought up.

"I volunteered because my mother is in New York and I felt helpless, but volunteering made me feel like I was doing something for the disease," Leath said. "There's such a need for caregivers. Having been there myself with my mother, I saw the stress it took on my sisters taking care of her. Going to the support group, I could see the need."

The respite group gives Mountain Area caregivers that opportunity from 9:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. every Tuesday at the Sierra Senior Center. It is then that caregivers are given the opportunity to drop off their loved one suffering from Alzheimer's, dementia, or another form of memory loss.

During those four hours, attendees are encouraged to participate in mind aerobics, they are read current events, play games, listen to music, have sing alongs, and enjoy lunch -- all while receiving personal care assistance.

"They may forget an hour after they've gotten home, but they seem to enjoy it," Flaherty said. "They may be resistant to come, but once we get started, have coffee, donuts, some games, topics for the day and what's happened in the news, it gets a discussion going and it doesn't take long to get them talking."

If caregivers are hesitant to leave their loved ones with strangers, they are invited to take part in the group until they are comfortable with the situation.

There are only a handful of participants who take part in the group, but both Leath and Flaherty still think their dedicated weekly service is worth it.

"Even though we don't have a lot of participation, I just feel we need to be there for the caregivers," Leath said.

Flaherty says this service is crucial for caregivers.

"Often the caregiver won't take care of herself (or himself) because she's (he's) so focused on taking care of their spouse that they doesn't go to the doctor or even get their hair done. As a caregiver, you can become very isolated and this gives them a chance to get out and their loved one to get out as well. Plus, they're connecting with other spouses and loved ones ... and developing friendships that way."

Karen Christenson is one of those caregivers who has come to think of the group as invaluable. She has been taking her husband, John, to the respite group for the last two years. John suffers from a form of Alzheimer's called Posterior Cortical Atrophy. Besides affecting his memory, the disease also affects the visual variant of the brain, so he is losing his vision as well.

Even though Karen now loves the opportunities the group offers her and John, it was hard at first but she knew that they both needed a few hours to regroup.

"I didn't know how John would take to it, but decided to give it a try," Karen said. "The first day that I took him I felt like I was abandoning him."

Karen felt so bad that when she returned to pick him up, she went in a little early so she could sneak in the back and see how it was going.

"To my amazement, John was laughing and participating," Karen said. "His continued participation has been a two-fold win. I get a much needed break and he continues to receive human interaction and continued communication skills. I believe this to be one of the most important decisions I have made for him in his journey through this disease. When John comes home from his group day, he is much more talkative, tells me about his day and laughs."

Karen said that without the respite group, the only alternative for caregivers in the Mountain Area would be to take their loved ones all the way to Fresno.

"With all the stress, we as caregivers are already experiencing, the thought of another drive to Fresno or wherever for another appointment just sends you over the edge," Karen said. "When do you get time to take care of yourself? The answer today is Tuesday's when you place your loved one in the care of Barbara Ann Jeanne and know they are well taken care of. You don't have to worry, they enjoy themselves and you have four hours to yourself to get your hair done, a manicure, have lunch with the girls, or better yet, just take a nap."

It costs $15 to attend. A portion of that covers lunch and the remainder benefits the senior center. The group recently took a few weeks break, but is back again from 9:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. every Tuesday starting Nov. 13 at the Sierra Senior Center on Cinder Lane behind the Oakhurst Community Center on 425B, Oakhurst.

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