Can our retirees save our caregivers?

Save our caregivers

The Montefiore Medical Center in New York has come up with an innovative program that symbiotically pairs caregivers who are going through a relative’s traumatizing hospital stay with specially trained volunteer retiree coaches. Traditionally, caregivers have been the glue that holds families together, though on the inside they may be falling apart with stress and caregiver burnout. Therefore, the question has always been ‘who is going to care for the caregiver?’ The Montefiore Medical Center is attempting to answer that question by nominating another segment of the population that is often forgotten and forsaken: retirees.

Conventional wisdom says that as we age we will be in need of a caregiver, but that doesn’t mean we should take the elderly to the nearest ice floe and let them drift. As it turns out, many senior citizens reach their autumn years as physically and mentally functional as younger people, if not more. Their only problem after retiring is what to do with their increased spare time. Moreover, many of them also want to give back to the community. Many hospitals provide caregiver support groups and make social workers available as well, but few have started volunteer retire initiatives. Those who have model their programs after one at Northern Westchester Hospital in New York.

Millions of people in America provide care for an aging or impaired family member or friend. We all know that caregiving under normal circumstances is no picnic, and one of the few things that can make it even harder is a hospitalization. Caregivers are likely to practice even poorer sleeping and eating habits than usual, and find themselves out of their comfort zone. Not that home care is what you’d call comfortable, but at least caregivers are accustomed to it. In a hospital, someone else is in charge, and that someone may be pretty difficult to get a hold of. That’s where retirees come in at Montefiore.

Caregivers tend to feel more relaxed around one of their own, and as it turns out, retirees need not have any medical background to qualify as volunteers (though many of them have been caregivers themselves). At the same time, the training that they receive enables them to act as a liaison between doctors and caregivers, not only tracking down elusive physicians, but also translating –so to speak- the doctor’s answers to the caregiver’s questions. For example, volunteer David Wolffe remembers a woman with terminal cancer whose parents failed to grasp the toll chemotherapy took on her daughter until Wolffe explained it to them.

In addition to emotional support and practical advice, volunteers offer what most caregivers are more in need of: an attentive ear. Often caregivers have to bottle up their feelings because they have become isolated or because they have to wait a month for a support group meeting. This program allows them to vent their frustrations to very good listeners. As AARP’s Lynn Feinberg says, the missing piece of the caregiver puzzle frequently is someone who is just a phone call away. 

It has yet to be determined whether the program makes a clinical difference; the center is conducting a study to see if cancer patients comply better with a taxing treatment when their caregivers have the support of a voluntary coach. What’s clear is that these coaches are neither nurses nor social workers. They are trained on non-judgmental listening and role play difficult situations. They are expected to treat caregivers with dignity and respect their boundaries.  Furthermore, although the caregiver can call or come to the hospital indefinitely, the support services do not include home visits, and that is actually a good thing. Home should continue to be the caregiver’s own turf. 

Related Read: What is Respite Care for Caregivers?