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The Changing Role of the Caregiver: Combating Loneliness, Overcoming Isolation, Developing New Friendships

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When we picture a caregiver, the first image that comes to mind might be that of a bedside nurse, or a hospital orderly. The role of caregiving seems to include either direct medical care – injections, prescriptions, blood pressure cuffs – or the less-pleasant demands of keeping the person needing care clean, dressed, and fed – in other words, dealing with the “activities of daily living” such as feeding, dressing and toileting that are part of a caregiver’s world.

But in this recent article from NextAvenuefreelance writer Michele Hollow suggests that we all might need to shift our definition just a bit. While it’s true that some people require a fairly labor-intensive type of care that can be both physically and psychologically demanding, there are perhaps millions of people out there whose primary caregiving need is for simple companionship. We found this article encouraging, primarily because, as we read it, we found ourselves saying, “I could do that!”

Common Interests Lead to Solid Friendship

Hollow begins her NextAvenue article with the story of Rita Scott and Denise Goerke of Atlanta. The two women met at a senior day facility—Scott in her capacity as program director, and Goerke as an attendee—and hit it off right away with shared interests and passions.

“Goerke’s husband, Dan, noticed their friendship and asked Scott to care for his wife a few days a week,” Hollow writes. “In 2014, Goerke was 56 and recently diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.”

Scott explains her role this way: “I was welcomed into their home. [Denise] was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and could mostly take care of herself. So I started two days a week, helping with light housework and shopping, but mostly spending time engaging with Denise. Dan thought it was important for me to keep her mind active.” 

Isolation Can Worsen Symptoms of Dementia

Simply spending quality time with people has a stronger effect than some might think. “During the pandemic, we heard from some dementia caregivers that they noticed an accelerated disease-related decline with their loved ones,” says Monica Moreno of the Alzheimer’s Association. “While more research is needed, some evidence shows social isolation may harm those living with Alzheimer’s or dementia. 

She adds, “But, on the other hand, strong relationships with others and having a social network can help those living with the disease have a better quality of life and may reduce agitation.”

Caregiver Becomes Part of the Family

For Rita Scott, relationship became the entire point of caregiving. “Dan read a lot about Alzheimer’s and shared a lot of the materials with me,” she says. “His main concern was for me to keep Denise’s mind as alert as possible. They had a loving relationship, and I felt like I was part of the family; we worked in her garden, took long walks, and talked.” 

And it wasn’t just Scott. Her high school age son also stopped by a few times a week to spend time with Denise. “We all loved Denise and her dog,” Scott says. “I loved her whole family like they were mine.”

Scott spent as much time as she could with Denise until the Alzheimer’s progressed to the point where the help of a memory care facility was needed. Even when Goerke was moved into the facility, Scott visited as often as she could. Denise passed away from Alzheimer’s at the age of 65.  “I felt the loss,” Scott says. “I thought of Denise as my older sister.”

Household Chores, and Plenty of Chit-Chat

“Esther Nunez looks forward to Wednesdays,” Hollow writes, “that’s when Annagrette Oberholtzer visits. Oberholtzer is a caregiver at Papa, a service that connects older adults with caregivers. Papa calls their caregivers pals.”

Just like with Scott and Goerke, Nunez has a strong relationship with her caregiver. “Annagrette and I have gotten close,” Nunez says. “I would say we are friends. It’s socialization for me, myself, and I. I have a special needs son, Leland, who is 32. So since Leland is not here when she comes on Wednesdays, it’s just her and I time.”

Nunez adds, “When Annagrette comes, we start with her asking what I need to do. First, she helps change the sheets because I have bad knees. Next, she checks things around my house to ensure I stay safe. She does some light cleaning or reaches for things that are up high because I’m short. Then we sit around and chit-chat.” 

Common Experiences Lead to Deeper Bonds

In the case of Nunez and Oberholtzer, shared experiences have led to an even deeper connection. “Esther and I have similar backgrounds in different parts of the child welfare system,” Oberholtzer says. “I was a case worker, and Esther was a foster parent a couple of decades before I graduated from college. We share stories about our experiences and discuss how times have changed. In addition, she updates her previous foster children with whom she maintains regular contact and sometimes shows me pictures of them.” 

Oberholtzer reminds Nunez about upcoming doctor appointments, helps with household chores, and assists with other typical caregiving tasks. Though Oberholtzer is mandated to spend 10 hours a month with Nunez, the visits fly by so pleasantly that she finds she has to set an alarm before the visit ends, to make sure she has time to do the actual chores she’s supposed to do. 

“It feels like I’m spending time with a good friend rather than going to work,” Oberholtzer says.  

Social Needs Are Now Seen as Health Needs

In her NextAvenue piece, Hollow writes, “In addition to in-person visits, people who use Papa can connect with caregivers via an app or the telephone. Papa partners with approximately 70 Medicare Advantage health plans.”  

“I believe we’ve entered a new era of healthcare,” says Andrew Parker, CEO and founder of Papa. ” Social needs are seen as health needs. Increasingly, the healthcare industry recognizes the value of nontraditional, yet impactful approaches like Papa to enhance member experience and improve outcomes.” 

Social connections don’t only provide a sense of belonging. They enhance mood, reduce stress and anxiety, and can even lower our risk of dementia. Not a bad reason to pick up the phone, send that email, or reach out to the people you love on a regular basis!

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(originally reported at www.nextavenue.org)

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