UC Berkeley News


Employees find tending to aging loved ones no easy task
CARE Services' Elder Care program provides caregivers with expertise, guidance, resources, and support

| 08 November 2006

In 1992, when the campus conducted a formal survey to identify the adult-care responsibilities of Berkeley faculty and staff, 63 percent of respondents age 30 or older indicated they were currently involved in caring for an ill or disabled family member or friend, had done so in the past five years, or expected to do so in the next five years.

Though no more-recent numbers are available, says Maureen Kelly, elder-care counselor at University Health Services, "We can only assume that that number has increased, since the staff and faculty have continued to age."

Maureen Kelly photo (Wendy Edelstein photo)

Kelly knows from the number of phone calls she receives that many campus employees suddenly find their plate of responsibilities overflowing, what with their jobs, caretaking for an elder, and in many cases parenting their own children.

Charged with providing faculty and staff with counseling and resources related to elder-care problems, Kelly would like to broaden everyone's understanding of the term "caregiver." As she explains it: "People often don't self-identify as a caregiver, because they have the notion that it means their elder is living with them and they're providing hands-on care."

Caregivers' responsibilities can in fact vary widely, as can the frequency of contact between caregiver and elder. At one extreme, says Kelly, is "the mom who's calling her daughter at work six times a day because she can't find her purse." At the other is the son who visits an increasingly frail mother in Florida twice a year and recognizes he will soon have to get more involved in her care.

In either case, and in all those that fall in between, the Elder Care program, established in 1997, offers a menu of free services for faculty and staff who are tending to an older person or a dependent adult with physical or psychological problems.

Kelly is Elder Care's ambassador and its only staff member. A licensed clinical social worker, she's not doing therapy per se but helping faculty and staff assess their elder-care needs, then directing them to resources, educational opportunities, and information.

Each month, the program sponsors workshops with experts who provide information on such topics as the legal needs of seniors, daytime-care options for frail adults who are not ready to move to a nursing home, relocating a parent across the country, and the importance of culturally sensitive assistance for Hispanic and Asian elders.

Xuan Quach, an administrator at the Goldman School of Public Policy, attended the latter workshop with her mother, a woman in her 50s who has been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease and whose primary language is Vietnamese. Through Elder Care, Quach has found a dentist who can communicate with her mother in her language and a support group for caregivers in their early- to mid-30s. "People in most support groups of this kind tend to be a bit older," says Quach. "I have a lot more in common with these women, who are going through similar career issues."

Being a care provider "is a balancing act in terms of time management," continues Quach. "Just the fact that the Elder Care program exists says a lot, and the fact that the university acknowledges that people on campus have these demands, and that it supports caregivers by providing such services," is a boon.

Tarea Ponder, a programmer analyst with Information Services and Technology, also finds attending a support group valuable. "By going to the group, I feel like things are not happening only to me," says Ponder, whose father moved nearby after her mother passed away last year. Ponder takes care of her father's grocery shopping and finances in addition to caring for her husband and two teens. At Elder Care's bi-weekly support group, Ponder hears of problems similar to her own. The solutions, resources, and advice she absorbs during her lunch hour help her return to her work with "a clearer mind."

The long haul

Such support is essential, says Kelly, who is concerned for overtaxed and stressed faculty and staff. Unanticipated scenarios with an elder can be overwhelming. "A family member's father is released from the hospital to rehab, the hundred days that Medicare covers is running out, and they've made the incorrect assumption" that the coverage will continue. "They're in crisis and can't figure out what to do next, so I'll sit down with them and tell them the options."

While there are no quick solutions in elder care, and problems require a great deal of advocacy and vigilance, Kelly recommends caregivers take a break when a crisis plateaus, even if it's only for a weekend. "It's very easy to lose sight of the fact that if we don't take care of ourselves, the whole house of cards will fall apart. You've got to come up for air" to be able to sustain the demands of caregiving relationships, she insists.

Those relationships can be complicated, Kelly says, since sons and daughters typically have "a whole lifetime of history" with an elderly parent that will color how they step into the new caregiving role. Those past dynamics matter when "suddenly you're called into this very intimate relationship where you're having to help them look at some tough stuff," says Kelly. "It puts both of you in a very vulnerable position."

While faculty and staff in such relationships may appear to be coping, "when you just scratch the surface and hear a little of their stories, you realize how much they're carrying," notes Kelly. She would like supervisors "to be mindful" if they have an employee who's caring for an elder, "since there may be times when he or she needs additional support." The latter may include of their challenges, a recommendation to seek assistance from CARE Services, and possible adjustment of their work schedule.

For information on the Elder Care program, visit uhs.berkeley.edu/Facstaff/CARE/eldercare. To schedule an appointment with Maureen Kelly, call 643-7754.

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