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Caring for caregivers is a top priority

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image Dolores Berens, president of the Sun City Center Samaritan Services Alzheimer’s Auxiliary Committee. Penny Fletcher Photo


SOUTH COUNTY — Since attending a health fair in January 1998 Sun City Center resident Dolores Berens has made it her business to see that families coping with Alzheimer’s disease get help, support and relief.

Berens, who has collected so many community service awards it would be impossible to list them all here, contacted the Sun City Center Samaritan Services Alzheimer’s Association run by Doris Ragland and asked what she could do to help.

Since then, she has been active in all kinds of work connected with Alzheimer’s disease, including fundraisers, acting as director on the Samaritan Services board and serving as president of the Samaritan Alzheimer’s Respite Auxiliary.

But she’s taken the cause to the public as well, bringing together the people who work in the health care industry that come in contact with Alzheimer’s patients and their families on a day-to-day basis.

While Ragland remains in charge of the Alzheimer’s Support Group, Berens has gathered a dedicated Auxiliary Committee composed of the heads of local assisted living communities and nursing care facilities and members of the community who want to help.

At first, all the money they raised went to Tampa for research through the local branch of the National Alzheimer’s Association, but after meeting the leaders from the health care industry, Berens changed her focus.

“I could see the caregivers who live here locally needed relief,” she told me in an interview at Samaritan Services last week. “There are times when they have to go into the hospital, or take a vacation, or just run errands. Taking care of a loved one with Alzheimer’s is a 24/7 job.”

And with that thought, the Alzheimer’s Respite Care group was formed.

Help came from a variety of sources.

“Hanson Services and Comfort Keepers have been with me from the start,” Berens said. “And Connie Lesko at Freedom Plaza and Bev Hurley at Homewood have been a big help, as have so many others.”

Plans for the coming year’s events are already in the works with Hangovers consignment shop in Apollo Beach providing fashions for a show Nov. 3 at noon at Freedom Plaza. Last year a similar event brought in $2,600 Berens said.

Another event now in the planning stage is an all-day education seminar at the Sun City Center Community Hall, 1910 S. Pebble Beach Blvd., Feb. 12, 2012 from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Alzheimer’s where nurses will take care of patients while caregivers and those who want to learn more about the illness learn about various techniques, research and support that can help them.

This free event has been held in past years and hosted between 200 and 300 people each time. It includes a complimentary breakfast and lunch and many expert speakers from across the country and from the University of South Florida Byrd Alzheimer’s institute.

The main thing that comes about from these events is that the Auxiliary is able to provide a choice of three gifts to some caregivers: either 50 free hours of in-home care; 50 hours of day care in a facility; or a full week’s stay at a facility so the caregiver can get away for a vacation or other purpose.

The Auxiliary does not actively solicit funds, but may receive donations from individuals, groups or from fundraisers held for its benefit.

Claudine Leger of Sun City Senior Living had a fundraiser and seminar recently and brought in experts from as far away as California to speak also.

Leger was able to provide a family member who, although she did not use the respite service of the local group, was able to explain what taking a break from around-the clock care meant to her.

“Auntie lived by herself until she broke a hip and it wasn’t healing,” Sherry Anderson said.

Anderson’s aunt, Alberta Strickland, now 101, has been with Anderson and her husband for three years.

One day someone in Mississippi where her aunt lived called and told her she wasn’t getting any better and could not be released from the hospital to live by herself.

So Anderson brought her through the airports in a wheelchair to her own home where she and her husband give her 24-hour care.

“She has not been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, but sometimes she’s forgetful. She needs care though,” Anderson said.

Anderson said that once her aunt got in the home environment, her health- and her mental capacities- got better and better until one day, the Hospice workers said they would be leaving. “They said they were needed more in other places,” said Anderson.

Hospice usually becomes involved in life-limiting illnesses where patients are not expected to get better. In past interviews with the organization I have been told they usually intervene at the request of clergy or medical personnel in what are usually a part of the last 12 months of a patient’s life.

As Strickland improved, Anderson saw that there could be many years of care ahead.

“I was apprehensive about putting Auntie anywhere even for the day,” Anderson said. “But when I went there (she used Sun City Senior Living but there are many good places in South County) and saw how they loved on the people in that unit my whole perspective changed.”

Anderson said she left her aunt there for a few hours of day care, and that convinced her she was safe to stay while she and her husband took a well-deserved five-day vacation.

“I was at peace about Auntie after watching how they’re cared for. Now she goes to day care occasionally too which gives me a few hours to get things done. I am so impressed by everything- including the food.”

Berens wants to make this type of break possible for many others.

“While we occasionally give to research, we think most of our fundraising should go locally to help caregivers with respite care,” Berens said. “We want to make our events fun and successful, and extend the respite hours we are able to provide.”

“This is a lifeline to someone who can be drowning,” said Dr. Eric Pfeiffer, former director of the Suncoast Gerontology Center at the University of South Florida. “People who don’t get care can’t give care.”

It’s like taking the oxygen from the mask yourself before putting it on a child or other helpless loved one in an airplane, he explained.

“Respite is a wonderful and much-needed service, and the group down there (South County) is providing an important piece of the Alzheimer’s puzzle.”

See related article: New developments in elder care, research to affect South County

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