Since Archstone Foundation gave Alzheimer’s Family Center (AFC) a grant to fund free Caregiver Counseling sessions, AFC has helped many caregivers of a loved one with dementia. Cheryl Alvarez, Psy.D, the Director of Outpatient Behavioral Health at AFC, explains why Caregiver Counseling services are so important.
How many caregivers have you been helping?
To date we have engaged over 55 caregivers in counseling and have helped a number of others by providing other resources such as support groups, community resources, and information on dementia and caregiving via phone when they were unable to attend counseling at this time.
What are the recurring symptoms that you see in the people you help?
Caregivers who care for individuals with dementia are among the strongest and most compassionate people you will find. Working with this amazing group of people has been truly humbling and inspiring. That being said, even the most capable caregivers in the most ideal situation still struggle with the losses and challenges that come with dementia.
Caregivers often have feelings of guilt for losing their patience or struggling with making decisions about their loved one’s care, especially if placement is a consideration. Caregivers also express tremendous feelings of grief over the loss of their loved one to the disease. The daily and often around-the-clock demands of caregiving are exhausting and taxing for all caregivers. The sadness that comes from having your loved one physically there but cognitively and emotionally unable to connect as a spouse or parent gives rise to a roller-coaster of emotions.
Most caregivers we see express feelings of depression, grief and anxiety. Sometimes caregivers have always struggled with these feelings while other times, caregivers are feeling this way for the first time. Some caregivers have conflicting feelings about the person they are caring for due to abuse, infidelity, or long-term conflict. The common thread is that caregiving heightens emotions and increases stress in people’s lives.
“Often, caregivers remark how much better they feel just attending one session. They gain understanding, perspective, and a tremendous sense of “someone else understands” and “I am not in this alone.” Caregiving can feel very isolating which only further exacerbates feelings of depression, hopelessness and stress. Having a therapist specialized in dementia as a sounding board and support can be a wonderful tool in gaining clarity, perspective, and emotional well-being. “ -Cheryl Alvarez, Psy.D.
Can you describe what a typical counseling session looks like?
At the first session, after introductions and an explanation of counseling, the caregiver has the opportunity to share what are the most pressing issues facing them in their caregiver journey. The therapist will gain historical information and data related to their relationships by asking questions to better understand the full caregiving dynamic presented. This enables the therapist to be able to guide the sessions towards effective solutions and processing of the major stressors involved in caregiving. Each session lasts 50 minutes, and the caregiver and therapist work together to problem solve, increase education on caregiving and dementia, identify stressors, and process those stressors to better manage their caregiver role. Counseling is generally completed when the caregiver, with the input of the therapist, feels that their situation has stabilized, or they are better able to manage the caregiver role. Sometimes that happens in a couple of sessions, sometimes caregivers choose to have an ongoing relationship with the therapist at some agreed upon frequency to manage issues that arise due to the changing and deteriorating nature of dementia. We worked with caregivers through various stages of their loved one’s dementia including the death of their loved one which gives the opportunity to process grief afterwards.
About Cheryl Alvarez, Psy.D.
Dr. Alvarez is a licensed Clinical Psychologist, and Program Director at Mind & Memory Program, which was launched in partnership with Mission Hospital and is the first of its kind in the nation. She holds a Master’s and Doctoral degree in Clinical Psychology from the American School of Professional Psychology at Argosy University. Dr. Alvarez is passionate about working with the patients and caregivers to improve their health and increase their quality of life.