When Dementia Strikes Educational Class Can Ease the Burden for Families
May 25, 2021
University Hospitals is only health care organization in Northeast Ohio to offer free, well-studied dementia caregiving course
UH Clinical Update | May/June 2021
Caring for a person with dementia is at turns lonely, frustrating and emotionally draining – often all in the same day. Because people with dementia often look absolutely normal, the condition can seem invisible to others. However, the caregiver at home knows full well that things are not normal, having to respond to their loved one’s confusion, loss of function and sometimes even combativeness.
“It brings everybody to their knees,” says Marianne Sanders, a Clinical Research Nurse Specialist with UH’s Brain Health and Memory Center. “Often times, people are just wringing their hands waiting for the shoe to drop. But in reality, if you can step back and try not to emotionally react but instead understand why your loved one is doing certain things, you develop better strategies for dealing with it. You’re not reacting; you’re developing a plan for how to handle different symptoms.”
To help caregivers do just that, Sanders offers a free 12-hour, in-depth course on dementia caregiving five times a year in person or virtually. Two-hour sessions are held once a week for six weeks, with eight to 10 participants in each class. Alan Lerner, MD, Director of the Brain Health and Memory Center at UH, provides financial support for the program.
“He feels it’s so important to educate and support caregivers,” Sanders says.
The Savvy Caregiver
The Savvy Caregiver, the nationally sponsored course is based on the Minnesota Family Workshop, which was developed with input from experts in nursing, family therapy, education and occupational therapy, all with the goal of improving outcomes for family caregivers and people with dementia.
Over six weeks, caregivers in the course learn the basics about dementia as a disease, how to adjust their caregiving to keep up with the cognitive losses their loved one is experiencing and how to build up an “emotional tolerance” in the face of these losses. Caregivers also discuss the often-uncomfortable notion of taking control of another adult – something that often proves necessary, but is nonetheless unsettling. At the same time, caregivers learn about the importance of self-care, how to gauge whether an activity is still appropriate for their loved one and how to design alternative “tasks for satisfying occupation” that might be good substitutes. Perhaps most importantly, caregivers are also trained in a problem-solving approach to caregiving.
“This allows people to stand back from the situation emotionally, identify the problem, create hypotheses about causes of behavior, generate solutions, make decisions and verify that the solution truly solved the problem,” Sanders says.
Although participants get to know each other and share experiences, Sanders says “The Savvy Caregiver” goes well beyond a traditional support group.
“When you sit in the same room for six weeks, people get to know one another,” she says. “But the class itself is primarily educational.”
So does it work? Researchers have studied “The Savvy Caregiver” as an intervention, looking at outcomes for caregivers. In general, evidence supporting its effectiveness has been well-documented. In one study dating back to 2003, researchers found that caregivers were more knowledgeable, more confident and more skilled after participating in “The Savvy Caregiver.” Another study in Colorado found that caregivers were more able to structure meaningful activities for their loved one as a result of the program.
Sanders says she’s gratified that “The Savvy Caregiver” course can provide answers and guidance for caregivers – even when those answers are hard to come by.
“We have to help people who are on this journey right now,” she says. “People need help and guidance and connection. That’s what we’re trying to offer.”