By TRAVIS HANDY
Sometimes in order to live with what is, we must let go of what was. That was the message delivered by Teepa Snow during her keynote presentation to caregivers attending the fifth annual Caring Connections Caregiver Conference and Resource Fair held Saturday, March 16 at New River Community College.
The daylong event offered resources and connections to valuable information and learning opportunities, which may make caring for a disabled individual a little bit easier.
Snow was delivering her message to a room filled with people either caring for, or supporting caregivers for, people with differing forms of dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. As she pointed out, one of the challenges of caregiving is surviving. The keynote session was focused on making attendees laugh a little bit and learn how to take care of themselves, as well as the person they’re caring for.
“We need to do more than just survive this disease,” said Snow, pointing out that most cases of dementia last from eight to 12 years. “You need to build a team, because you’re in a marathon here. If you’re planning on a sprint, you’ll give out before this is over. And in 40 percent of cases with dementia, we lose a primary caregiver as a caregiver before we lose the person with dementia.”
Snow, one of the nation’s leading educators on issues surrounding dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, is also a registered occupational therapist specializing in dementia care and education. She holds a private practice and has clinical appointments with Duke University’s School of Nursing and UNC-Chapel Hill’s School of Medicine.
Snow has dealt personally with four cases of dementia or Alzheimer’s disease in her own family and as a caregiver, and has worked professionally in the field for 33 years. She said some of the most valuable moments of what she does involve seeing the “Aha!” moments experienced by the people attending her sessions.
“When people get their aha moments and they realize, ‘oh… oh!’” Snow said. “It’s nothing but connecting dots for them, but when they can see from the person’s point of view who has the disease, or they can step back and realize they do need to change something because it’s not working, suddenly there’s an aha, and when they get that, everything changes.”
Snow said the greatest thing caregivers can learn is to build a network to support their caregiving efforts.
“Figure out how you’re going to go through this journey and get help,” said Snow. “Reach out and find out what’s out there, even before you think you need it. Because when you do need it you’re often too stressed out to go and look for it. You can’t do it in that moment because you’re worn out. We’ve got to figure out that taking care of ourselves is not selfish; it’s absolutely essential.”
Another important point Snow made is that the numbers associated with dementia and Alzheimer’s are going up. Whereas right now there is one out of five families dealing with it, within 20 years, it will be one out of two. She stressed the importance of research in the field.
“We’ve got to figure this out, because if we don’t, we’re dooming ourselves,” said Snow. “This is the tsunami of the 21st century. This is the big wave, and we’ve got to get it under control. We’ve got to learn how to help each other and ourselves.”
According to Cassie Mills, one of the leading organizers with the New River Valley Agency on Aging, this year’s conference had higher attendance than in the past and was even more successful.
“It grows every year,” said Mills. “We have more caregivers this year than ever before.”
Mills pointed out there were people attending the conference from North Carolina, West Virginia and Tennessee. She said people find out more about the conference through word of mouth, friends and family.
“There were 209 total attendees for Saturday’s conference. Out of those 209, 115 were caregivers,” said Mills. “We also had 42 exhibitors representing organizations that provide services or products to assist caregivers.”
The day offered multiple workshops ranging from stress management and laughter therapy to understanding the basics of Medicare and to avoiding elder financial abuse, all of which were led by local professionals.
Martha Daley and her husband, William, lived in Greenville, N.C. until April of last year. The Daleys moved to the New River Valley to be near family living in the Blacksburg area. William has been exhibiting signs for around three years and has been diagnosed with dementia. Martha said the experience can, at times, be stressful and depressing.
“Keep going,” she said. “Use all the adjectives you want.” Martha is fortunate, though, because her family is near them at their home at Warm Hearth Village in Blacksburg.
“I have my family here,” Martha said. “So sometimes they’ll get a call, or sometimes I’ll come over and see them… sometimes I just cry, which isn’t good, but this was very good today.”
She and her daughter-in-law Michele said as soon as they heard about the conference they knew they had to attend.
“It’s a horrible disease and it’s hard to watch, especially when it’s someone you’re close to,” said Michele Daley. “I work in the aging field, so I know all about it, but when it actually happens to someone who’s really close to you (it’s difficult).”
“It’s nice. It’s wonderful that this came at this time. It was a good time for me,” Martha said. “I think it’s very illuminating and I just think they’ve done a wonderful job (with the conference) and I hope they continue to do it.”
The conference drew lots of great feedback from attendees, according to organizers.
“There was a lot of positive feedback from not only caregivers at the conference, but also from sponsors and exhibitors,” said Mills. “One caregiver expressed that she felt safe at the conference; that everyone there cared and wanted to help and for the first time, she did not feel alone in what she was going through. For me, looking out into the audience when Teepa was presenting and seeing the “aha” look on a lot of the faces of caregivers was extremely rewarding. They were relating to what she was saying and suddenly feeling not so alone.
“We would sincerely like to thank all of our sponsors, especially New River Community College Workforce Development, as well as the many community agencies and organizations who were there as exhibitors and presenters. Our annual conference is an event that brings caregivers together for mutual support, education and inspiration. As always, we strive to bring together as many resources as possible and keep the conference free for family caregivers. And these partnerships are vital to its success.”