Elder Services of Cape Cod

By Brian Morris

(Listen to an audio version of this story).

When an elderly person becomes unable to care for themselves, the job often falls to a spouse, adult child or other family member. Many are unprepared for the challenges of setting up ongoing care and services for their loved ones. One local organization, Elder Services of Cape Cod and the Islands, is helping caregivers become better equipped for the job.

Last July, Mashpee resident Maria Turner got word that her 76 year-old uncle was not doing well. So she went to his house to check up on him.

Maria Turner: "I went in and found him very dehydrated, kinda lethargic, not really able to stand up or whatever, so I called the ambulance and got him to the hospital. That's how it kinda all began."

Maria's uncle was stabilized, but she soon realized it was up to her to assume control of his care - a responsibility for which she wasn't fully prepared.

Maria Turner: "I didn't wanna see him like that, although at times I was quite upset that I was the one, but once I finally hit the realization that, it's me, it's on you, you have to take care of it, then I started looking for every possible avenue I could to do whatever I had to do."

One of the places she found help was Elder Services of Cape Cod and the Islands, an agency where caregivers find information and support services to help them care for their older loved ones.

Elder Services was established in 2000 under the Older Americans Act, created by Congress to advocate for caregivers who support the elderly. It's federally-funded, and also receives supplemental state funds. Elder Services supports between 100 and 140 caregivers in any given month, either in person, or by connecting them to specific services.

They recently provided support to 41 elders who were among the evacuees at Camp Edwards. Roberta Jordan is Program Coordinator for the agency. She says it's important for caregivers to fully understand the illnesses their loved ones face, because each can affect mood and behavior in different ways.

Bobbi Jordan: "One of the things we know is that information is power. And understanding what's going on in any particular healthcare situation allows you to give appropriate support, and it also can alleviate a lot of anxiety. This is especially true when you're working with dementia or Alzheimer's - any form of dementia, of which Alzheimer's is one."

Jordan also mentions two key documents which every caregiver should have in place: a health care proxy, which ensures that when someone can no longer make healthcare decisions for themselves, someone else can do it for them; and a durable power of attorney, which allows someone to sign certain documents on another's behalf. Jordan says that without these two important provisions, it can become a lot more complicated to make decisions involving a loved one's care.

Bobbi Jordan: "A will is to protect your estate once you're no longer with us, where these two documents protect your life while you are with us."

Many caregivers on the Cape and Islands are themselves elderly spouses, often in their 70's, and that presents a whole other set of challenges. As they struggle to maintain their spouse's quality of life, their own health can begin to deteriorate.

Bobbi Jordan: "Frequently - too frequently - the caregiver is the one who ends up in the hospital. And then there's no one to care for the elder."

Over time, many older caregivers also develop feelings of guilt or inadequacy, says Jordan.

Bobbi Jordan: "It's not unusual for me to pick up the telephone and find that I have a caregiver in tears on the other end: 'I'm so upset. I don't think I can do this any more. I feel like I'm letting my husband down. I never thought that I wouldn't be able to care for them.'"

Despite its many hardships, though, caregiving can be an enriching experience, as Maria Turner discovered. Her uncle was first sent to a rehab center, where he was misdiagnosed with dementia and given the wrong medication. But she eventually placed him in an assisted living facility in Dartmouth. Although he died there of a heart attack this past October, Turner says her uncle was happy when he arrived.

Maria Turner: "He got out of the car, walked around and said, 'Oh, yeah, this place looks really good.' He sat and met the people 'very, very nice' and sat outside there and just said, 'Thank you. There is a God. I love it here.' He was so happy, and his whole demeanor had changed."

The role of caregiver is an enormous sacrifice of time and emotional energy. It requires large reserves of patience, resourcefulness and vigor, and much of it involves on-the-job training. As caregivers provide support for their older loved ones, maintaining their own health and well-being is also critically important. The key to successful caregiving is striking a balance between the two.

Elder Services of Cape Cod and the Islands
Main Office
68 Route 134, South Dennis, MA 02660
508-394-4630
Email: caregiver@escci.org

Elder Services of Cape of Cape Cod and the Islands also has offices in Pocasset, Oak Bluffs and Nantucket.
For more information on their other offices see our list of Community Resources.

Broadcast November 24, 2005

Brian Morris reports for the Cape and Islands NPR stations.