Big things are happening for Alzheimer’s caregivers at the Riverside Center for Excellence in Aging and Lifelong Health.
Thanks to the work of Dr. Christine Jensen, there are more resources for caregivers in Virginia than ever before.
Jensen, the center’s director for health services research, has dedicated her career to helping caregivers of patients with Alzheimer’s disease and is particularly busy with one project that provides families of patients suffering from memory loss with information, engagement and support.
Aptly named the FAMILIES program, it’s the first of its kind being offered in Virginia and it provides counseling for Alzheimer’s caregivers in a series of free sessions over several weeks.
During the sessions counselors work with caregivers to assess their individual situations, develop a care plan, discuss coping strategies and more.
Jensen said the feedback has been extremely positive, and the number of families enrolled in the program has been higher than expected.
She says the goal is to help families understand that their experience, their struggles and their journey as a caregiver are not unique. Other caregivers are feeling the same struggles, and Jensen wants to eventually see a community of caregivers, sharing tips, advice and emotions as they continue to care for their loved ones.
She also manages the Rosalynn Carter Institute of Caregiving’s “Caring for You, Caring for Me” program, a five-week seminar course designed for caregivers of older adult that provides information on the social and healthcare needs involving elder care.
As an undergrad studying psychology at Roanoke College, Jensen fell in love with her field after taking a psychology of aging course.
“It just clicked for me,” she says, explaining she went on to obtain her masters and doctorate degrees in gerontology. As part of her dissertation, she interviewed 100 caregivers and was moved by each of their stories.
“Just hearing people’s stories, I became overwhelmed, but also so impressed with what they were doing that I thought, ‘This is who I need to help,’” she says.
She also had firsthand experience of seeing her father and aunt care for her grandmother, who suffered from dementia.
Jensen eventually landed the job at the Riverside Center for Excellence in Aging and Lifelong Health and became a professor at the College of William & Mary and Virginia Commonwealth University, teaching classes in the gerontology department.
From her years of personal and professional experience in the field, she offers this advice to caregivers:
“They have to take it a day at a time. They have to do their homework and become educated about what’s happening to their loved ones.” She suggests getting in touch with someone from the Alzheimer’s Association and getting a referral to a neuropsychologist or geriatrics physician to get another opinion.
And after receiving that life-changing diagnosis, Jensen advises the caregivers give themselves a little love.
“I know you want to do it all, but you can’t” she says, explaining caregivers need that space from their loved one suffering from Alzheimer’s, even if it’s just a lunch break, to decompress, to cry, to show gratitude. “They’ve got to take a break for themselves,” Jensen says.
More information on the FAMILIES program can be found here, and click here to learn more about the “Caring for Me, Caring for You” program.