Alzheimer's caregivers aren't alone

While she's committed to caring for her 78-year-old mother in her home, Phoenix resident Ann Chizek finds that some days are tougher than others.

Common for patients who suffer from dementia or Alzheimer's, the woman who raised her doesn't recognize her as her child, can be prone to wandering, and becomes easily agitated at things such as bathing or changing her clothes.

While her mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer's a decade ago, Chizek took on the role of caregiver in 2010.

"My dad cared for her at their home until he passed two years ago, and nothing prepares you ... no one can imagine how hard it can be," said Chizek.

Much to her relief, Chizek learned earlier this year about a University of Washington program dubbed STAR-C, where coordinators have a pretty solid idea of the myriad challenges faced by family caregivers.

Provided locally by the Rogue Valley Council of Governments, STAR-C is geared toward helping family caregivers in Jackson and Josephine counties navigate the special challenges they face with family members suffering dementia or Alzheimer's.

The program, which is administered through a series of eight, one-hour coaching sessions, tackles topics such as sadness and depression, anxiousness and worry, sleep issues, resistance to care, wandering, verbal and physical aggression, and social isolation.

With some 15 million Alzheimer's and dementia caregivers providing 17 billion hours of unpaid care valued at $202 billion, according to the Alzheimer's Association 2010 national report, caregivers face their own emotional and physical struggles from providing prolonged care.

One-third of caregivers report symptoms of depression.

Lucinda Hardy, a local consultant for STAR-C, said the program provides an important lifeline for caregivers trying hard to keep loved ones in the home for as long as possible.

"There are no families that I have met and worked with that haven't really appreciated what this program does for them," Hardy said.

"It really provides a toolbox of things they can use to get through most of the things that come up. When you're in a situation like they are, you need a lot of tools, because what might work on Tuesday won't always work on Thursday," said Hardy.

"These patients, their long-term memory will kick in and they'll want to go home, and they are absolutely sure that where they are living is the wrong home. Or they'll see someone walking by and decide they need to go on a walk. It can be very difficult for the caregiver."

Carol Terry, regional coordinator of STAR-C for RVCOG, said six local consultants have thus far worked with local 80 families, seeing about three-quarters — or 60 families — complete all eight sessions.

The program includes follow-up phone calls and phone consultations following the initial eight sessions.

"We're pleased with what the program is providing, and we want to see more people use the program because it's really effective in helping these caregivers," Terry said.

"Our primary goal is to help caregivers have less depression and have a better caregiving experience for them and their loved one."

Chizek said she was grateful for the coaching she received from the program.

"Alzheimer's is a horrible disease, and it takes a lot of getting used to," she said.

"It really helps that there's a program that will help give you something else to focus on, and give you kind of a plan and some new ideas, as opposed to just trying to cope with or deal with everything off the cuff. I feel like it really gives you tools that help you think about what you're doing in a different way."

Describing her mother as "a young 78," Chizek said the program not only provided her with new caregiving techniques, but introduced her to community resources and helped her to realize she's not alone in sometimes feeling overwhelmed.

"I didn't realize it before, but now I realize there are a whole lot of people in the same shoes that I'm in."

For information about the STAR-C program, call Terry at 541-471-2863.

Buffy Pollock is a freelance reporter living in Medford. Email her at

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