Empath Health Community Partnership Specialist Maria Pepe

November marks Alzheimer’s Awareness Month and Family Caregivers Month. We wish to acknowledge the many families who are taking care of loved ones with Alzheimer’s or other dementia in our community.

Alzheimer’s is a complex and incurable disease that can last for several years. It deteriorates the minds, moods, behaviors and functioning of millions of individuals worldwide and takes a big toll on their caregivers. Caregivers may benefit from connecting with each other to help deal with the heartache and responsibilities of caring for their loved ones.

Empath Health offers a specialized support group for caregivers impacted by Alzheimer’s. The group launched last January and meets the second Tuesday each month in the morning at Largo Public Library. It is held in partnership with the Alzheimer’s Association and the City of Largo.

Co-facilitators of the group are Empath Health community partnership specialists Maria Pepe and Tracy Christner. This type of support is needed more and more as the numbers of Alzheimer’s diagnoses continue to rise.

“Alzheimer’s is here to stay. The numbers are alarming. And it has been linked to other chronic conditions that are prevalent with minorities, including diabetes and heart disease in Latino and African-American communities,” Pepe shared.

She added, “We have touched the lives of about 15 families and currently have about five families with a caregiver who attends. We have a combination of spouses but most are children of someone with Alzheimer’s.

The great majority of these caregivers are still working. For all of the caregivers who have attended, we have been their first group. We try to help them feel comfortable. Once they are there, they realize how much they learn from other caregivers and how much they are not alone.”

The group takes away isolation and opens up a common and safe space to share feelings, Pepe explained.

“One of our caregivers had to quit everything to become a full-time caregiver for her loved one. That creates a lot of isolation. Being surrounded by other caregivers allowed her to feel like she wasn’t being judged because she had to do things to be able to support her loved one. We found that the working caregivers put on a face when they go to work and they can’t bring this part of their personal lives into work. I notice that there is always a combination of tears and laughter, especially for the ones who come for the first time.”

Pepe said that she and Christner bring literature, topics and activities but the group mostly leads itself.

“Each relationship and family are unique and we try to respect that. At the end of the day they drive the group. They lift up each other. They are the experts. The ones who have been caring for their loved ones the longest are signs of hope for these journeys.”

One major topic of discussion in the group is communication with other family members, Pepe shared.

“Family dynamics come up a lot. Many of them are the rock of the family. They are the organized ones, positive ones and ones who always make things work. It’s a difficult and frustrating time because they (loved ones) are sick and not going to get better. Showing vulnerability, fears and sadness might not fit with their families. They give each other a lot of tips and hope on how to handle conversations with family members and care receivers. They treasure this time to share what went well or didn’t go well since the last time they met.”

Another important part of the group is sharing information, she noted.

“Resources are a big topic. They share elder law and physician recommendations, activities they can do with their loved ones, meals to eat at work, how to travel and more. Senior Services Officer Joel Quattlebaum from Largo Police Department also attends most of the meetings and offers support. Besides his personal experiences, he brings a lot of practical help. He helps them understand the difference between Power of Attorney and guardianship and how to have conversations about drivers’ licenses, tracking systems and Silver Alert. He’s a great resource.”

Get Support

You are invited to join our last group meeting of the year on Tuesday, December 11 from 9:30 am to 10:30 am at Largo Public Library. Register with Maria Pepe at (727) 479-7071 or MariaPepe@EmpathHealth.org, or Tracy Christner at (727) 536-7364 or TracyChristner@EmpathHealth.org.