One of the most troubling things about care-giving is that the ones who are providing the care to their loved ones with chronic illnesses often don’t get the care they need to support their own mental, emotional, and often even physical health.  The first line of defense is for the caregiver to identify himself or herself as just that…a caregiver.  The second is to become educated on resources available within the community.  And the third is to learn ways to de-stress and refresh.

Caregiver SOS by WellMed can fill this “caregiver prescription.”  Caregiver SOS is an extension of WellMed Charitable Foundation, the charitable arm of WellMed Medical Management, one of the largest healthcare providers in the state.  Caregiver SOS is focused on addressing the needs of caregivers of loved ones, 60 years of age and older, who are dealing with a chronic illness.  All of their services are provided completely free of charge. “WellMed is committed to changing the face of healthcare delivery for seniors,” Carol Zernial, executive director of the WellMed Charitable Foundation, wrote in a recent news release.  “To do that, we must address the needs of caregivers who provide 80 percent of the care in this country.” 

Originally opened in April 2009 as Leeza’s Place, WellMed took over the center in January and changed the name to Caregiver SOS by WellMed.  Located at 5401 S. McColl Road, the Edinburg center is immediately north of Doctor’s Hospital at Renaissance.  It is funded by WellMed, the Lower Rio Grande Valley Development Council’s Area Agency on Aging (AAA), the Texas Department of Aging and Disability Services, and Physicians’ Health Choice (a WellMed subsidiary HMO).  A second Caregiver SOS is located in Harlingen at 512 Victoria Lane in the Harlingen Senior Center.

Caregiver SOS offers a variety of services for caregivers.  Rather than a cold, office-like environment, the center seems more like a home away from home, with comfortable couches and a big-screen TV in the “living room,” a “family room” replete with puzzles and crafting tools and a few more private rooms for family conversations and interventions.  The rooms are painted in soft hues that certainly add to the sense of peacefulness within Caregiver SOS.  Two computers are available for caregivers to research their loved ones’ diagnoses.

“It makes you stronger in making decisions,” said Leticia Guzman-Sanchez, caregiver specialist at Caregiver SOS.  “If you’re educated, you make the right decisions.”

It’s a multi-faceted identification process.  Once the caregiver identifies himself or herself as a caregiver and identifies the diagnosis of the loved one, the next step is to identify resources in the community that can provide support to the caregiver and the loved one being cared for, such as home health agencies, doctors who specialize in various chronic illnesses, counselors, and even lawn care businesses and beauticians. 

All of these steps allow caregivers to unload some of the burden that comes with caring for the chronically ill.  The final step is for caregivers to learn the importance of taking care of their own physical, mental, spiritual and emotional needs.

“If you’re a healthy caregiver, you’re more likely to make the entire journey with your loved one without getting ill yourself,” Guzman-Sanchez said.

The most common chronic illnesses caregivers who visit Guzman-Sanchez tend to on a daily basis are Alzheimer’s and related memory disorders and Parkinson’s.  She also advises caregivers whose loved ones have had a stroke.  “Even diabetes is considered a chronic illness,” Guzman-Sanchez said.

Caregiver SOS offers a wide array of services:

    •    A media library with DVDs that provide critical information on chronic illnesses.  For example, there is a three-disc set titled Hopeless: The Alzheimer’s Project.  In these DVDs, Maria Shriver shares her own family’s journey with her father’s diagnosis of Alzheimer’s and what it often does to the family unit.  This program also covers cutting-edge research.  Caregiver SOS continues to expand its media library.

    •    Socialization opportunities for caregivers, including events like a breakfast on Mother’s Day for mothers who are also caregivers.  Caregivers also come to this home-away-from-home to do scrapbooking and stamping, giving them a chance to relax and meet new people who understand their struggle because they, too, live the caregiver life.  “We recognize that isolation is the doorway to depression,” said Guzman-Sanchez.

    •    Family meetings and interventions to discuss how each member of the family unit can play a role in care-giving rather than placing the entire burden on one person.

    •    The Caregiver SOS e-newsletter (which can also be sent to caregivers via snail mail if they do not have access to a computer) and e-blasts that provide information on local, state and national issues of importance to caregivers.  These e-newsletters and e-blasts also provide information on local events hosted by non-profit agencies and community events that may be of interest to caregivers.

Caregiver SOS also offers a variety of programs.  The LRGV Caregiver Tele-Connection, modeled after Care-Ring Voice in Montreal, Canada, provides one-hour sessions via telephone on a variety of educational topics, followed by a group discussion or question-and-answer time.  This program is specifically designed for those who can benefit from the education and guidance of the center but who do not have transportation or cannot leave home.  Telephone sessions include such topics as “How Do I Spell Relief:  A Caregiver’s Stress Management Guide,” “Managing Difficult Behaviors of a Loved One,” and “Developing a Care Plan: Know your Future Now!”  Two of the sessions being offered in May are “The Tell-Tale Signs of Caregiver Stress” (May 10 at 10:00 a.m.) and “For Better or Worse:  The Challenges of Caring for a Husband or Wife” (May 24 at 2:00 p.m.).  Some Spanish classes are also offered.  Guzman-Sanchez and local experts moderate the sessions.  Caregivers can register for one of these programs at www.caregiverteleconnection.org or by calling 866-390-6491 toll-free.

Another program on the center’s “prescription plan for caregivers” is the Stress-Busting Program for Family Caregivers.  Like LRGV Caregiver Tele-Connection, the Stress-Busting Program is evidence-based and designed for those who care for individuals with Alzheimer’s or related dementias.  Two researchers at the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio developed the program, funded through an Administration on Aging grant.  Caregiver SOS has partnered with the Area Agency on Aging of the Lower Rio Grande Valley, the Area Agency on Aging of the Capital Area, South Texas Veterans Health Care System, Bexar County Area Agency on Aging, the University of Texas Health Science Center and WellMed Charitable Foundation, to make this program possible.   These 90-minute programs are held once a week for nine weeks.  The maximum number of people in a group is eight. 

“Many caregivers don’t know how to manage stress,” Guzman-Sanchez said.  “They often are trying to juggle work, family and their aging parents or other relatives.  This program teaches them relaxation and coping techniques.  We do activities like journaling, music therapy, breathing exercises and guided imagery.  The program has wonderful materials, and they’re all free of charge for our caregivers.” 

Two current Caregiver SOS projects include an awareness campaign for local doctors and other healthcare providers to enlighten them about the services offered by the center and an intergenerational project that will provide an opportunity for young people to volunteer to provide programs and activities for caregivers.

“If we don’t start engaging our kids to value aging,” said Guzman-Sanchez, “they won’t be able to be caregivers when their parents are in need.”  Through this developing project, local children can provide musical entertainment, theatre performances, arts and crafts activities and other services.  Opportunities are as vast as the group’s imagination.

Theologian and philosopher Abraham J. Heschel once said, “A test of a people is how it behaves toward the old.  It is easy to love children.  Even tyrants and dictators make a point of being fond of children.  But the affection and care for the old, the incurable, the helpless are the true gold mines of a culture.” 

Caregiver SOS clearly recognizes the value of caring for the elderly and the importance of nurturing those who do so every day.