By KATIE BERGGREN
When Veronica Woldt noticed that Orville, her lively father, was becoming confused, she attributed his behaviors to fatigue. She hoped her 76-year-old dad would snap out of it and resume his normal routine of household maintenance and visiting with his two daughters. “Dad was retired but kept himself busy,” Woldt said. “He always had something to do.”
When Orville didn’t improve, Woldt and her sister, Monica, had him examined by his doctor and also by doctors at Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minn., which was hours away from his home near Green Bay, Wis.
“Our mom doesn’t drive much anymore, and I live near Milwaukee and my sister lives in Washington, D.C.,” said Woldt. “We were constantly juggling schedules and taking time away from work. It was extremely difficult to help.” Orville Woldt was eventually diagnosed with Lewy Body Dementia, which resembles Alzheimer’s Disease, in 2008.
Veronica Woldt’s eldercare story is significant. She’s one of the many adult children in the U.S. who have an aging parent who needs assistance. She’s also a gerontologist. As both an aging expert and as a child who has helped a parent with a devastating age-related illness, Woldt has special insight into the problems of helping an elderly family member.
“The U.S. aging statistics are stunning.
The issues of elder care will impact
all of us soon in some way.”
~ Veronica Woldt, gerontologist
Seniors represent about 10 percent of the U.S. population. By 2030, the number will double; one in five Americans will be over 65 years of age. The 80 plus age group is one of the fastest growing. About 80 percent of seniors have one chronic health condition such as arthritis, diabetes or heart disease, while 50 percent of the aging population have two chronic health conditions.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, currently 85 percent of those 65 and over will need in-home care giving assistance at some point.
“That’s a lot of care-giving,” said Woldt. “Helping an aging family member or friend is an act of love but it’s also enormously stressful.”
Eldercare includes taking the senior to appointments, the grocery store or shopping. The elder relative also might need help with food preparation, house cleaning and personal care.
“Then there are the medical issues such as medication monitoring and proper disease diagnosis,” said Woldt, who went back and forth with doctors for months to diagnose her father’s problems. “Care givers, who often aren’t medical personnel, can be overwhelmed by the difficulties of finding the correct medical treatment.”
In short, caring for an aging person can be exhausting. Caregivers often become depressed or burned out from the care giving, and they can experience family or financial problems. They also may have a higher rate of work absenteeism due to taking time off to help their aging family member or friend.
Nancy Nie is a Madison-based nurse with more than three decades of experience that includes geriatric care services. Nie said she sees two important, recurring patterns in regard to senior care.
“Sometimes seniors lack insight or misunderstand the reality of the problem; they can’t make decisions,” said Nie. “Often caregivers are not realistic about how to fix the problem.”
In other words, the senior person may already be experiencing memory loss and have decreased cognitive skills and the family members may be in denial.
“The family members don’t want things to change; they’re busy with their own lives,” said Nie. “They often don’t understand the energy it takes to be a caregiver.”
Nie works to protect both the senior and the caregiver. When she is managing a geriatric case, she frequently requests that the senior be placed in a day care so that the caregiver has a break. Also, a day care environment stimulates the elderly person and lets them interact with peers to feel like a member of society.
Most importantly, Nie said caregivers need to be realistic. Caring for an elder person isn’t temporary. His or her needs will be ongoing and it’s best to plan accordingly. For example, Sarah Gardner, who is a California resident, has a mother who is facing some health challenges at her home in Wisconsin. Gardner has built flexibility into her California work-home life to regularly visit her 82-year-old mom.
“I juggle everything in my life to fly home,” said Gardner. “But we make it work. Mom needs to see us.”
Woldt encourages caregivers to seek help. “Use local and Internet resources to gather information and build trust and support among you, your family, the doctors and other care providers,” she said. “It’s all vital to successful caregiving.”
Woldt and her sister continue to assist their father, who now resides in a skilled care facility. “Getting the correct diagnosis of his illness and moving him was enormously difficult,” Woldt said. “We worked through the frustration and the tears but we were happy to do it for our dad.”