CINCINNATI — Gladys Yancey was in terrible shape by the time she and her youngest daughter arrived at the emergency room.
She screamed in pain when a doctor cut into her infected foot, Elissa Yancey said, but quickly collected herself when she realized her daughter was starting to faint.
“Get a chair under her!” Elissa Yancey said her ailing mother shouted at the doctor and nurses. “She snaps out of everything horrible that’s happening to her to be like, ‘Take care of her!’ because that was just her instinct.”
It was a part of what became the final chapter of Gladys Yancey’s life, years marked by increasingly complex health problems and a growing need for her baby girl to become her primary caregiver.
“I was very close to my mother for all of my life,” Elissa Yancey said. “After my dad died, it became really clear that the closeness I had with my mom made me the most natural fit to be her sort of everyday caregiver. As her health conditions got more complicated, it became more important for there to be a key contact person to sort of manage the day-to-day details.”
It has been a decade since Yancey’s mom died just shy of her 88th birthday. Yancey said she still clearly remembers that, as rewarding as it was to spend time with and care for her mom, being a caregiver also was difficult, stressful and isolating.
Those stresses and strains have gotten worse for caregivers during the coronavirus pandemic, said Shelley Goering, the executive director of 55 North. The nonprofit organization serves senior citizens and was formerly known as Hyde Park Center for Older Adults.
Designated caregivers for aging parents and other relatives often have extra obligations these days, Goering said.
“They may also be caring for the grandkids so that the parents can work at home or in a separate place,” she said, or they could be working from home themselves without the break from caregiving that work can offer. “It just adds to the stress of the whole situation.”
Fortunately today’s caregivers also have new resources they can lean on for support.
Under Goering’s leadership, 55 North started a monthly, online caregivers support group called Caregiving Smarter, not Harder that provides practical tips to care for loved ones.
And Yancey wrote an eBook called “Grab Happy: The Serendipitous and Surprising Sides of Caregiving and Survival” to share what she learned as a caregiver and offer advice and perspective for those who are going through some of the same challenges she did with her own mom.
Molly Prues, a 55 North board member, facilitates the organization’s caregiver support groups. She’s a gerontologist who also was a caregiver for her late mother during the last 20 years of her life.
“Being a caregiver is a 24-7 job that definitely caught me off guard,” she said. “My dad died suddenly, and my brother and sister were out of town. So I was primarily caring for her.”
Both Prues and Yancey found that their mothers’ needs expanded. First they needed help to live independently, then help with medical appointments and health care. Eventually, they needed assistance with financial matters, too.
“It often gets ramped up very quickly and catches people unaware,” Prues said. “And then all of a sudden they have to find themselves being an expert in all these different facets.”
The 55 North caregiver support group discussions cover all those topics and helps give caregivers an outlet to express themselves and talk with others who are experiencing the same challenges.
“When you are on your calls with work and you have a parent who might be living with you, that has really driven a lot of caregivers to really seek out support because they’re juggling,” Prues said. “They don’t have work as the sanctuary anymore to go to. It really has illuminated the needs of the caregivers even more.”
Starting in January, 55 North will kick off a caregiver writing program to help participants explore their feelings and challenges through poetry, storytelling and journaling during a two-and-a-half-hour workshop, she said.
That will be available in addition to the Caregiver Empower Hour offered at two different times each month, Prues said. Those are designed to provide practical information from speakers on such topics as dementia care, nutrition and safe driving.
“This is an opportunity for caregivers to come together and to share with one another,” Prues said. “Their stories, their victories, their experiences and what they’ve learned and really build that community of caregiving.”
55 North also plans to record the speakers from their programs to create podcasts so people can get the information on their own time, she said, and the organization will offer continuing education opportunities for professionals who work with caregivers.
“It’s really empowering everybody around the care of the older adult,” Prues said.
‘It’s very stressful’
While Goering doesn’t decide on the specific caregiver programming at 55 North, she knows first-hand how important it is.
She has an adult son with a severe disability from a childhood illness. He lives on his own with care 24 hours a day, seven days a week, but Goering is one of the family members who makes sure he’s getting the care he needs and who provides additional help if he gets sick.
Goering also helps take care of her mother, who moved to Greater Cincinnati from Cleveland to be closer to family. Her mother lives in a senior living community but hasn’t been able to take part in the social activities it usually offers because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Trying to care for her from afar and make sure she’s tended to and taking care of my son,” Goering said. “It’s very stressful -- as well as working full time.”
Trying to fill so many important roles at the same time is something Yancey said she remembers well.
Her two sons were little and needed her at the time that her mom also needed her the most. Plus, she was working full time as a journalist.
It took time before Yancey felt comfortable writing about her mom, her loss and her experience as a caregiver. She said she wrote her eBook in a format that people can purchase, download and read while they’re waiting in doctors’ offices or hospitals.
It contains the information Yancey said she wishes she’d had all those years ago.
The support that 55 North now offers would have been helpful, too, she said.
“We all know that moods are in some ways contagious,” Yancey said. “If a caregiver is depressed, how can they really connect in healthy ways with their loved one? It’s going to be really hard. So then when a loved one sees a caregiver suffering, that only exacerbates their own problems.”
Like that day in the emergency room, Yancey said, when her mom shifted her focus from her own pain to that of her youngest child.
55 North has two Caregiver Empower Hour events coming up. The next one will be at 4 p.m. Dec. 10, and another will be held at 10 a.m. on Dec. 17. To register or get more information on those programs or future programs, contact Nicole Christ at (513) 321-6816 or at email@example.com.
Yancey’s eBook is available for $4.99 on Amazon.
Lucy May writes about the people, places and issues that define our region – to celebrate what makes the Tri-State great and shine a spotlight on issues we need to address. To reach Lucy, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.