Eldercare issue rises to fore in Roaring Fork Valley as boomers continue to age
Post Independent Intern
Sometimes referred to as the sandwich generation, the number of adults balancing the challenges of caring for their aging parents while juggling their own children and even grandchildren is increasing as baby boomers reach into their 50s and 60s.
Even for those adults whose children are fully grown or who don’t have children, the demands of caring for an elderly parent can be challenging. Libby Weir, 55, has spent the past three years caring for her aging parents in Glenwood Springs, and she said she’s not alone in her situation.
“We’re turning into a huge demographic in this country of adult children taking care of their parents,” Weir explained. “There are so many challenges, and the need is just going to increase as the baby boomers age.”
Weir’s story began in 2010, when, after 28 years in the long-term healthcare profession, she decided to take a break and travel to Alaska with a friend, where she spent six months working in Denali National Park in the summer of 2010.
Midway through her trip, however, Weir discovered her father, Ed Doak, was terminally ill. After returning home, Weir spent three weeks with him, coordinating hospice services so he could remain at home with his family.
“The goal is really to keep elders in their homes with supportive services,” Weir said, pulling from her medical background and her own family experiences. “I believe very strongly, if at all possible, it’s important for them to be at home, cared for by the people that love them.”
After Ed passed away, Weir began keeping an eye on her mother, Genevieve, while traveling between Glenwood Springs and her home in Cedaredge.
“I was trying to go back and forth and balance two households, but then it became evident I couldn’t leave my mom,” Weir said. “As her health has declined, she needs somebody with her all the time. I don’t want to place her in a nursing home, and I believe she’s happier at home.”
Genevieve, more commonly known as Gen, was losing both her vision and her mobility as she aged, and she was experiencing serious heart problems. Now 87, she has a pacemaker and is an insulin-dependent diabetic, and she can’t drive or read.
By the fall of 2011, Weir had moved back to Glenwood Springs full time to take care of her mother, renting out her home in Cedaredge. Despite nearly three decades of experience working in the long-term healthcare profession, she said the transition into caring for her own parents proved to be a challenging venture.
“All the things I was so confident of in my knowledge as a professional — it’s so much more personal when it’s your own parents,” she said. “You have doubts; you question yourself.”
In caring for her mother, Weir said she has faced a number of challenges she wasn’t sure how to address, such as her parents’ linen closet. When she moved back in with her mother, she discovered an entire shelf filled with expired and outdated prescription medications.
“That’s such a huge safety issue,” Weir said. “I wanted to take all of the medications out of the linen closet, but I didn’t know what to do with them. You get into these situations where you know you should do something, but you don’t quite know what to do.”
From getting her mother up and down the stairs to figuring out how to provide for herself while caring for Gen full-time, Weir said she encounters new challenges on a regular basis.
“Getting to her doctors appointments, getting to the grocery store — she really doesn’t have the ability anymore,” Weir said. “She would definitely be in a nursing home now if she didn’t have someone at home to care for her.”
Patient Advisory Council
For the challenges she faces in caring for her mother, Weir has recently turned to the Patient Advisory Council at Glenwood Medical Associates (GMA). Formed in March of this year, the council incorporates a number of GMA patients and staff members. Several of the patients, like Weir, have medical backgrounds.
“The Patient Advisory Council grew out of Glenwood Medical Associates wanting to become certified as a Patient-Centered Medical Home,” explained Sarah Oliver, a nurse practitioner at GMA. “A lot of it is directed at patient-centered care and the patients having a lot of input in their own care.
“We were asking for feedback on the issues they were seeing, and one of the biggest issues was disposing of medication. We never would have guessed that.”
After Weir brought the issue to light, the council began researching disposal options, at which point they discovered a medication drop box located at the west entrance to the Glenwood Springs City Hall, which had been installed in 2010.
“The drop box was there, but there was very little knowledge about it,” Weir explained. “Now I know where to take [the medication].”
Oliver said GMA has developed a number of services specifically to benefit local caregivers and elderly patients, such as virtual office visits, where patients can follow up on lab results or request prescriptions for minor illnesses. GMA also provides hard copies of visit summaries, which include diagnoses, care plans and additional resources.
“It’s very helpful, because sometimes you can’t remember everything you heard, or maybe you didn’t understand it, but seeing it in black and white will help,” Oliver said.
GMA also added a new position to its staff earlier this year in the form of a clinical care coordinator, DeAnna Barber. Barber works with roughly 300 high-risk GMA patients to check in about appointments and connect them with local resources, and she is available as a resource for all GMA patients.
“There are a lot of services, but it’s hard to know about them without help,” Oliver said. “I see a lot of patients being cared for by their adult children, and a lot of them are overwhelmed, especially the ones without a medical background. The clinical care coordinator makes sure they get what they need.”
On a larger scale, Northwest Colorado Options for Long Term Care (NWCOLTC) provides a number of resources for Medicaid long-term care in the home and at assisted living and nursing home facilities.
A division of the Garfield County Department of Human Services, NWCOLTC holds an annual caregiver conference every June in partnership with Garfield County Senior Programs and the Region 12 Area Agency on Aging.
“The conference is an opportunity for caregivers to meet each other, learn about the resources available in the community and go to breakout sessions about different topics,” said Linda Byers, the program manager. “It’s a great link to the community.”
NWCOLTC also organizes two grant programs: one for caregiver support, such as equipment purchases or educational opportunities, and one for senior services, which is targeted at enhancing independence.
Additional eldercare services are provided by Garfield County Senior Programs, which works to enhance the lives of local seniors through a nutrition program that offers congregate meals throughout the county and a transportation service, which is operated in conjunction with the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority.
Having now spent two years caring for her mother full-time, Weir said she has learned more than a few important lessons, and she’s thankful for the variety of medical services available locally.
“The hardest thing for me to learn was to ask for help, because you pride yourself on self-sufficiency,” Weir said. “You have to take care of yourself, because if you wear yourself down, you can’t take care of the person you’re responsible for. You just have to try to find that balance.”
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