When caregivers face abuse, there’s hope
When Pam M.’s husband, Keith, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, the Richmonder felt confident she could care for him.
“I thought, ‘Keith and I can handle this. We love each other.’ But you don’t realize the extent it changes your entire life. I was prepared for him not knowing me, but not for the anger towards me,” she said.
One day, that anger, a common symptom of Alzheimer’s, came out in a frightening way. “He put his hands around me and tried to choke me,” Pam said. “I tried to yell for help. I couldn’t pull him off.”
She said that’s the moment she realized she needed assistance in his care.
Though Pam had stood by her husband’s side as caregiver until nearly the end of his life, she decided to place him in a memory care facility, where he died in 2019.
With the number of aging adults increasing nationwide, there’s a good chance you may be a caregiver one day, if you aren’t already.
For many, in addition to the exhaustion of caring for an ailing loved one, there’s a difficult challenge behind the scenes: caregiver abuse. Although elder abuse is a hot-button issue, the “other side of the coin” — abuse of caregivers — often goes unaddressed.
Dementia can change personality
For some people, the aging process magnifies an already abrasive personality. However, in many cases, a disease such as Alzheimer’s or dementia can cause behavior changes.
Suzy S. noticed a change in her normally pleasant husband, David, nearly 10 years ago.
She originally met him when he was a student at University of Richmond and she was studying at East Carolina University. “He was a charming gentleman,” Suzy remembers about her first date with the handsome football player.
The couple fell in love and later wed. “We’ll be married for 54 years in June,” she said.
Her husband, now 77, was diagnosed with dementia several years ago. At the time, Suzy was determined to take care of him. But although her husband had always been a good, kind man, “with dementia, the filter goes,” she explained.
“The language he used — it was as if somebody else was talking. He became increasingly difficult. He would scream at me,” Suzy said.
“He never hit me, but he pushed me. I think the hardest thing is you see this person that’s fading away.”
After years as her husband’s caregiver, she eventually sought outside support and help. Her husband is now in assisted living.
Help is available
According to organizations that provide caregiver support in our area, many Richmonders seek help after having been mistreated. Some caregivers endure verbal abuse or, like Pam, even physical abuse by a spouse, parent, grandparent, relative or friend.
How can you cope with this if it’s happening to you? Several local organizations and support groups can help.
Both Pam and Suzy received assistance from Circle Center, a licensed, private nonprofit adult day care service. Located near Willow Lawn, Circle Center provides meals, nurse check-ins and activities for older adults as well as support groups (and a much-needed break) to caregivers.
“A well-run adult day care center can create moments of joy,” said Jay Burkhardt, Circle Center’s director of social work. “We preach a lot about self-care here,” he said. “It’s vital. If you try to do it on your own, it will wear you down.”
Circle Center was a lifeline for Pam. “Jay saved my life,” Pam said, remembering how overwhelmed she felt.
Suzy also found solace at Circle Center’s caregiver support group.
“Jay, in my opinion, is a hero,” she said. “If you’re lucky enough to get in the right support group, it’s a lifesaver,” she said.
“It takes courage to ask for help. None of your friends and family really get what you’re going through. The people in the support group, I believe, really do understand.”
Abused caregivers often feel isolated. If they speak up about the abuse, they may experience a lack of compassion from others because of a societal tendency to excuse inappropriate behavior of elders.
Yet continued mistreatment can create a crisis or breakdown in family relationships if the caregiver is not positively supported.
In addition to family caregivers, professional caregivers can also be on the receiving end of mistreatment and abuse. According to caregiver specialists, this can include racist or sexual comments, or inappropriate contact.
Burkhardt suggests that all caregivers try to find local resources before problems arise.
“Seek out support ahead of time. Don’t wait until you are at your breaking point. Put those supports in place well ahead. Know what’s out there, put them in place, and don’t wait for a crisis.”
A team approach
Dee Caras, caregiver support specialist with Senior Connections, the Capital Area Agency on Aging, also believes it’s crucial to have a plan in place.
“It’s key to have discussions. We must face our own mortality. Develop a plan of care that best supports everybody. I’m a big proponent of a team approach to care.”
Caras emphasizes the importance of self-care. “As a caregiver, prioritize that, and do not feel guilt about it.” This includes setting boundaries and having a discussion to clarify those boundaries ahead of time.
Pre-planning and a proactive approach can make a big difference, Caras said. “I see the difference…the peace that comes.”
Where to get support
Here are a few local resources for caregiver support:
Senior Connections, the Capital Area Agency on Aging, Caregiver Support Services and Respite: seniorconnections-va.org/services/assistance-for-caregivers, (804) 343-3000.
A Caregiver Spouses Support Group meets twice a month on the first and third Monday at 3 p.m. at Circle Center Adult Day Services: circlecenterva.org, (804) 355-5717.
At AgingCare, an online caregiver’s forum, people can seek help anonymously: agingcare.com.
The Alzheimer’s Association supports caregivers 24/7 through their helpline, 1-800-272-3900, and website: alz.org. In keeping with its long commitment to diversity and inclusion, it has announced a new outreach initiative to diverse communities.