CareTalks | Wisconsin Institute for Healthy Aging

CareTalks for Caregivers

Kris Krasnowski
February 18th, 2015 — 5:42pm
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Stephanie Hafez leads a CareTalks session with caregivers in Green County.

Meet Lynnette Miles.  She starts her day at 5:30 a.m. “The first thing I do is pray,” she says. “I ask God for the strength to do everything I need for my husband that day.”

A resident of Monroe, Lynnette’s role as a caregiver began in 2013 when her husband Bud suffered two strokes during a vacation. She was told that Bud would not be able to walk, use his right hand, or speak ever again. The couple has been married for 57 years; for Lynnette, this is just a change in the way they do things together. She works with her husband daily on speech therapy, reflexology, and massage to help regain his abilities.  She also attends and advocates for him at doctor appointments.   

When she received a letter inviting her to participate in CareTalks as part of a research study, she knew it was something she should do. “I knew I had to get better at communication,” says Lynnette, “and the class has done wonders for me!” 

“Taking care of an older family member can be really hard and often presents caregivers with unexpected challenges,” says Stephanie Hafez, Wellness & Prevention Specialist at the Aging & Disability Resource Center (ADRC) in Green County. “We thought: what can we do to make this better?”

ADRC staff made it their mission to find out. In 2011 with a grant from the Greater Wisconsin Agency on Aging Resources (GWAAR), the Aging & Disability Resource Center (ADRC) in Green County formed a caregiver coalition to better meet the needs of caregivers in the community.  Part of that process involved surveying caregivers to better understand their needs. A key finding was that many caregivers believed that communication with health care professionals was challenging — and often ineffective.

To combat the problem, WIHA’s Community-Academic Aging Research Network (CAARN) paired the ADRC and health care professionals at the local Monroe Clinic with UW-Madison researchers Paul Smith, MD, Betty Chewning, PhD, and Beth Martin, PhD, to design and pilot an intervention aimed at improving communication between doctors and the caregivers of older people.  The result was BeST Communication — a project that promotes health communication skills in caregivers of older adults.  It involves a program called CareTalks — an intervention to improve patient-initiated, patient-provider communication.

CareTalks workshops consists of three weekly sessions of 120 minutes each, a “booster” fourth session about one month later, and a follow-up telephone evaluation one month after the fourth session. Eight to ten caregivers participate and free respite care is provided to encourage participation. Prior to the first workshop, information is sent to subjects including a request for them to think about the top two issues they would like to address with a health care provider. This information is collected during the first session and used to shape the subsequent session content and format. The educational program is a combination of didactic and skill-building exercises that include problem-solving and role‐playing.  

The sessions that focus on making the most of interactions with health care professionals by explaining what a caregiver should do before, during, and after an appointment were especially helpful for Lynnette. “I like to be prepared,” she says, “this class showed me how.”  

Lynnette has changed the way she communicates with her husband’s doctors since the workshop.  She now uses online systems (MyChart) to ask questions, makes sure to use “I” statements when bringing up concerns, and brings two copies of her list when they have an appointment — one for her and one for the doctor.  “This class was so informative,” says Lynnette.  “It taught me what I need to know to take good care of Bud.” 

Currently in stage 1 of development, the program has been tested with three groups of Green County caregivers and early results are positive.  “I feel as though I learned so much about how to talk to doctors,” said one caregiver. “Being prepared is so important.  I used to just walk in and try to remember everything I wanted to discuss but would inevitably forget something.  This is one part of the caregiving process I feel much more confident about and that reduces my stress immeasurably.”

According to Jill Renken, Community Research Associate for WIHA, the next phase of research will include additional counties and she invites counties that are interested to contact her for more information at jill.renken@gwaar.org.

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