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Keynote speaker Debra Gillman addresses caregivers during the seventh annual Caregiver Conference at WITC. (Photo by Tom Lindfors)

Seventh annual Caregiver Conference celebrates family caregivers

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Anything we can do to include more people and make care for everyone more available can ultimately help to make everyone healthier, those we care for and the caregivers as well.” That was Debra Gillman keynote speaker at the seventh annual Caregiver Conference hosted by WITC on Friday, Sept. 20.

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According to conference coordinator Nancy Abrahamson, the conference originally conceived of by the Aging and Disability Resource Center (ARDC) of St. Croix County has grown exponentially since its inception seven years ago. This year for the first time the conference partnered with WITC’s continuing education department taking advantage of its registration and marketing expertise. It paid off attracting close to 200 family and professional caregivers to this year’s conference.

The conference committee consists of ARDC representatives from Dunn, Polk, Pierce and St. Croix counties along with professionals from local elder care programs and hospitals and individual family caregivers about 15 members in all. Their primary responsibility is to develop each year’s program and recruit knowledgeable professionals to lead a series of breakout sessions. Many of next year’s topics will come out of suggestions provided via an evaluation form participants submit at the end of the day long conference.

“We really listen to caregivers,” Abrahamson said.

“The primary goal of this conference is to help the family caregiver, caring for either an aging adult or someone who may be disabled between 18-55 years and above, find the tools they need to enhance their skills, but also to affirm and empower them,” Abrahamson said. “Family caregivers don’t have a chance to get out and shop (for resources). They have all they can do to manage daily care.”

The conference puts many of those resources at their fingertips in form of more than 30 vendors and professionally led educational sessions addressing topics from Medicare/Medicaid to Compassion Fatigue. Professional caregivers benefit as well receiving Continuing Education Units (CEUs) for attending sessions and having an opportunity to network with other professionals.

“I’m here to learn how to take care of myself while I take care of my husband,” said Julie Wingert. “It’s pretty hard balancing between you and your responsibilities. There are days you just break down. I take one day at a time.”

Abrahamson has noticed several trends in her 25 years working with caregivers.

“Early on there weren’t very many men seeking help,” she said. “Now some of my support groups consist of 50 percent men.”

Remote or long-distance caregiving is also increasing.

“Families are distributed all over the country. That means finding resources near those who need care, resources they can trust,” Abrahamson said.

She points out the opposite scenario is also occurring. Families used to move closer to their parents, now parents frequently move to be closer to their children and grandchildren.

But one thing hasn’t changed.

“We’ll never be out of a job. Statistics support a growing need for caregivers as baby boomers age and science finds new ways to prolong lives,” Abrahamson said.

“Some things have changed dramatically,” Gillman said. “Even though there are a lot of challenges in the area of funding and the cost of care, we have more resources available than ever before. We need to continue to build those resources for those we care for as well as caregivers.”

Gillman cites the advent of home healthcare and community options programs in the early ‘80s having a huge impact on the caregiving culture.

The theme of this year’s conference, “It’s all about you (the caregiver)” was central to Gillman’s keynote address titled, “Moving Yourself Up from the Bottom of the Priority List: The Caregiver’s Dilemma.” In her address Gillman stressed balance and resilience. Caregivers need to embrace the complete experience, “all of it,” both the highs and lows of caregiving.

“There is a huge part of caregiving that has to do with loss and uncertainty. Those are also a part of the fullness of life. Embrace the fullness of life, not just the parts that make us feel good or happy,” Gillman said.

But to do so successfully, caregivers must be resilient. To be resilient, according to Gillman, a caregiver needs four things: a sense of meaning or purpose, hope, social support and connection, and they must manage stress.

“The best training is having people in the community, people who have a variety of different kinds of needs in, around and amongst us,” Gillman said.

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