OLDS — Two local residents have found the Olds Caregiver Support Group to be a great source of strength and validation, so they’re hoping that by getting the word out, others will learn about it and benefit from it.
The purpose of the group, founded in the early 2000s, is to provide support for anyone who is caring for a friend or loved one.
That friend or loved one may be living with a chronic illness, dementia. They may be awaiting placement in a caregiving facility/residence or adjusting to that new life.
Barb Wychopen found herself in just that situation when she, her daughter and her two sisters moved her 90-year-old mom who had dementia to a safe living unit. She passed away in mid October.
Generally, the Olds Caregiver Support Group meets the third Tuesday of every month at 2 p.m. in the Royal Canadian Legion Branch #105 (the location or time can sometimes be moved).
Wychopen has been attending the group’s meetings for about two years.
“I had to wait seven months before a spot opened up for mom and she really went downhill, especially through COVID -- the isolation of the seniors through COVID -- and I was just at my wits end,” Wychopen said during an interview with the Albertan.
“It's huge responsibility, exhaustion, pins and needles. And at the same time, I'm grieving the loss of my mom as I knew her. And so my journey has been mother/daughter,” she said.
“Everything from their social outings to their daily routine is centered around the need for providing the care and keeping the person safe.”
Wychopen learned about the support group via a notice in a local store and it’s been a life-changer for her.
“Where the caregivers support group was so valuable was they were very compassionate, but they gave me really good advice,” she said.
Wychopen had been filled with some difficult fears and emotions; that she was locking her mom up for example, or that her actions may inadvertently tip her mother into a deeper form of dementia.
“I got such professional, sensible advice,” Wychopen said, noting the group is facilitated by Cindy Andrus, a continuing care counsellor with Alberta Health Services.
“She was able to help me understand that the way my mom was presenting, the symptoms and the patterns, that she really needed that care today.
“And she also reminded me that when we agree to our loved ones going into care, we're not doing it to them, we're doing it for them.
“We're doing it for them so that they're safe and they're professionally cared for and they're cared for by a team of people that know and understand the disease and the people care in a professional capacity,” Wychopen said.
“They just know how to care for them in a completely different way than I could as a daughter.”
And by doing so, those staffers relieve caregivers like Wychopen, who can be completely exhausted, physically and emotionally by looking after their friend or loved one.
Wychopen said another key aspect of the group is that anything said in it is all confidential.
“Some people are embarrassed to say they need support or help and so they don't want other people to know that they're going,” she said.
“So it's completely confidential, compassionate and you get information, facts, medical information.”
Mary Devolin helped get the caregiver group going, along with Andrus, in about 2010.
“My husband was in the hospital and he had Parkinson’s (Disease) and had to be placed in a care centre. But at that time there was no organization for caregivers’ support as a group,” Devolin said.
“It was an issue of understanding what I was going through and to be able to deal with it and able to cope with it. And to know that I wasn’t alone; that other people went and needed help as well,” she added.
“It definitely did (help me) and it still helps me. It’s made me see the other side of life of elderly people, and that people try and cope by themselves, but just find it very difficult.”
Devolin said the size of the Olds Caregiver Support Group varies, but is generally in the range of 10 to 12 people; men and women.
Devolin stressed that the support group isn’t just for people whose loved ones have dementia or some similar disease.
It’s for anyone who needs caregiver support, including those dealing with loved ones suffering from diseases such as cancer as well.
Devolin volunteers at the Olds Hospital and Care Centre two or three days a week and works with a Parkinson’s support group.
“All these people in a group need the support of each other,” she said.
“It helps people to deal with their own stress,” she said. “If you keep it locked up inside, it eats on you.”
The group provides attendees with advice on where and how to get help.
“It’s a real journey and it’s a maze to figure out what department I need to contact and how do I fill out the forms,” Wychopen said.
"’Where do I go, where do I go? Like, is it home care? Where do I find out how to apply for financial assistance,’ because these people can’t work anymore, some of them,” Devolin said.
“Most of them can’t, because they’re ill or they’re looking after someone.”
Devolin gave the example of a wife looking after a husband.
“He was the breadwinner and she never worked, but she’s looking after him.”
Wychopen said people as young as in their 40s could find themselves caregiving and needing support.
“In the 40s, when you would expect to start easing back on things and begin looking forward to retirement, a sudden illness or stroke or mishap/accident happens and all of a sudden you’re a caregiver,” she said.
“It’s important for people to come to a group. It is a sad group, but it’s also a happy group,” Devolin said. “It’s a group where one can have a laugh and share. And to laugh today is very important.”