Just two months into her role of caregiver for her mother-in-law, Jennifer Alvarez knows both the challenges and rewards of serving in that role. It can be trying and exhausting, but also uplifting, if your family steps up to provide loving support.
Jennifer’s 88-year-old mother-in-law Pat, who has Alzheimer’s disease, had been receiving assistance from her grandson Jimmy, who lived with Pat for about five years. “But Jimmy was no longer in a position to keep a careful eye on Pat while trying to work full time,” Jennifer said. “Her dementia had progressed and [the situation] became unsafe.”
Facing the challenge of finding a place other than a nursing home where Pat could receive more supervision, Jennifer and her husband Danny decided to offer Pat a home. The need for Pat to move coincided with a need by Jennifer’s daughter Trycel and her husband to find care for their two-month-old daughter Harper.
So Jennifer decided to leave her full-time job so she could take care of both Pat and Harper. “[Leaving my job] gave me the opportunity to have Harper as well. I feel very lucky that I get to do this,” Jennifer said. “It isn’t easy by any means, but I just feel like everyone in the family is affected in such a positive way, rather than having had to make the really tough decision of having to put Pat in a home. I didn’t feel she was ready for that yet.”
Living with someone who has Alzheimer’s is difficult. “Sometimes when someone asks you a question 20 times, you have to remember they are just tired or having an off-day. When I feel frustration coming on, I give her hugs. [The person you are taking care of] can feel your tone of voice and feel your body language no matter what level of dementia or Alzheimer’s they might be dealing with.”
Even in such a short period of caregiving, Jennifer has discovered some outside resources that have helped her with coping strategies, including a support group at Vintage House Senior Center in Sonoma where she can talk with others going through similar experiences.
Jennifer also takes Pat to Council on Aging’s Senior Social Club at Vintage House twice a week, where Pat can socialize with other seniors, enjoy art projects and entertainment, and have lunch with other social club clients. “Every time I pick her up she is so appreciative and she calls the people there her friends,” Jennifer said. “I think it really helps with her health and well-being, as well as mine.”
Also helpful is how much Jennifer’s family has embraced the living arrangement and agreed to pitch in. Pat spends one weekend a month each with her husband’s siblings Dana and Paul. “That gives us a nice balance of some time to ourselves, too, to refresh and move forward,” she said.
Jennifer’s youngest daughter Chelsy, who lives with her mother and father, has agreed to watch over Pat while Jennifer returns to a favorite activity aimed at maintaining Jennifer’s own well-being. “I’m an avid hiker and stepped away from that for a while to get focused on this acclimation.”
Jennifer’s children have rallied around Jennifer and Pat in a way that warms Jennifer’s heart. “Our four kids live close and they frequent our house, and I think it’s just brought us a deeper admiration for how we can pay it forward. I feel deeply in my heart that it is the right thing to do. And I do know Pat appreciates it. She may not be able to articulate it, but I know she has a thankful heart.”
Photo: Four generations of the Alvarez family (l-r): Pat, Trycel, Harper and Danny.