By Lance Wiedower
Ron Schlagheck’s mother was a reasonably healthy person, living until 95. But the last eight years brought challenges for the family following her diagnosis with vascular dementia.
Talking to other caregivers has given Ron and his wife, Cecelia, perspective on how tough caring for a loved one can be.
“It’s easy to say ‘I’ll take care of them,’ but you don’t realize the toll it takes on you,” Cecelia said. “The illness gets deeper and before you know it, you’re not living your own life.”
In May, the Schlaghecks attended a session known as “CAREversations” in Murfreesboro, where they had the opportunity to meet other caregivers and to share information and experiences.
Ron, 72, is a retired NASA engineer and Cecelia, 71, a retired teacher. They moved to Winchester 10 years ago from Huntsville, Ala., and now volunteer for AARP, traveling to Middle Tennessee communities to share their knowledge and help others through CAREversations.
These interactive group sessions, which are free and open to anyone, not just AARP members, connect caregivers with one another and to AARP resources found at aarp.org/caregiving.
Among those resources is the DIY (Do It Yourself) Caregiving Conversations toolkit, a collection of materials AARP volunteers use to establish CAREversations gatherings in communities across the state.
The toolkit is free from AARP Tennessee to any group seeking it to put on such an event.
Cecelia said it’s important for caregivers to understand help is available and to know they’re not alone in caring for a loved one.
November is National Family Caregivers Month, a time to recognize and celebrate family caregivers while spotlighting educational opportunities and increasing support for people who take care of loved ones.
Support and resources
AARP Tennessee estimates there are roughly 1 million family caregivers in the state, who provide more than $10 billion worth of unpaid care annually. The organization wants to make sure Tennesseans are aware of the support and resources available.
The CAREversations events started in Middle Tennessee and are spreading to other parts of the state. The idea is simple. Attendees come together, maybe have dinner or a glass of wine, and discuss the realities, stress and struggles of caregiving for loved ones. Even if dozens of people attend the event, the conversations occur in small groups for more meaningful talks.
There is practical information, too. Participants go through the AARP Prepare to Care booklet, which discusses taking care of a loved one and features simple guidance that might be hard to remember in the stress of the moment.
Participants are “like-minded and there is empathy there,” said Stacy Pennington, AARP Tennessee community outreach director. “They’re building their own support groups through these conversations.”
“We stress that if you’re not a caregiver, you will be,” said Stanley Yeargins, 66, a retired educator who is the AARP chapter president in Murfreesboro and manages CAREversations in his area. “And if you live long enough, you’ll need care. We want people to feel comfortable in sharing.
“People sometimes think you haven’t gone through the things they have, but we all share our own personal experiences,” he said.
Are you interested in bringing CAREversations to your community? To learn more about sessions or to volunteer, call 866-295-7274 toll-free or go to aarp.org/tn.
Lance Wiedower is a writer living in Collierville, Tenn.