By Alex Gillis
On a recent visit to the long-term care hospital, Filippo noticed that his brother hadn’t eaten all day. “He was with a group of people, drinking coffee and talking too much,” laughs Filippo. He’s in his seventies and regularly cares for his sibling, who’s recovering from a stroke. “I helped him to eat some fruit, and I collected his clothes to wash.”
As a primary caregiver, Filippo spends two or three days per week providing support to his brother, but he needs support himself, as do tens of thousands of senior caregivers in Toronto. A new collaborative called ENRICHES — supported by the Foundation initiative, Innoweave — is attempting to fill this gap.
“Caregiving is an inherently isolating activity,” explains Dr. Joel Sadavoy, chair of the ENRICHES steering committee. The initiative addresses the complex needs of Toronto-based caregivers who are 55 years old and up. “[Caregivers] struggle mightily to maintain functional lives, often facing agonizing decisions,” he says. “Many promise never to give up on a loved one, caring for them in their homes 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Usually, nobody from outside really understands the full impact of what they face.”
Funded by Canada’s Department of Employment and Social Development, ENRICHES stands for Engagement to Reduce Isolation of Caregivers at Home and Enhancing Seniors. The Alzheimer Society of Toronto, the Canadian Mental Health Association (Ontario Division), North York Community House, WoodGreen Community Services, Sinai Health System’s Reitman Centre and Sinai Health System Foundation founded the collaborative. ENRICHES is one of the programs Innoweave is supporting in nine communities across Canada as part of Seniors SI, a new $25-million partnership with the Government of Canada to help generate, implement, and scale socially innovative community level approaches to reduce the social isolation of seniors.
Not only is Filippo’s brother recovering from a stroke, but he also struggles with Alzheimer’s. He’s been in long-term care for 10 months, but each week, Filippo brings food, including his favourite — Torrone biscuits — washes his laundry, comforts him and tackles practical problems, like how to apply for in-home care, or, as his brother puts it, “a permit to go home.”
“He’s always happy to see me,” Filippo says, “but I visit him one day, and the next day, he can forget everything. Sometimes, I return home, and he calls me and says, ‘Oh, I’m scared. Why are you mad at me?” and I say, ‘No, no, it’s not true!’”
ENRICHES began helping caregivers in the fall of 2015. “We run an integrated network of projects that identifies the caregivers who are most isolated, engages them in various activities, and connects them with services to enhance coping skills and expand their social networks,” says Dr. Sadavoy of the $3.7-million initiative.
Caregiving is a strenuous and intense commitment, with those being cared for deteriorating over time. Filippo used to help his brother seven days a week, but he scaled back because of extreme pain in his knees. Perhaps the hardest part of caregiving is feeling isolated while trying to do everything possible for a loved one.
The ENRICHES collaborative helps meet part of the huge demand.
“Roughly 1,450 caregivers and 60 organizations have been engaged so far,” says Einat Danieli, the ENRICHES project manager. “The organizations encourage caregivers to participate and to feel fine about sharing and asking for help often.”
One of those organizations coordinates eight-week courses called Living Life to the Full, which provides caregivers with education and skills to manage life’s extreme challenges. Filippo completed the course a few months ago. “The course helped in understanding the symptoms of depression and ways to connect to other people – and ways to solve bigger problems.”
This is where caregiving meets self-awareness and compassion. “Caregiver burnout and distress is such a high priority that we wanted to make sure that mental health support was part of ENRICHES,” says Jenny Hardy, program manager with the Canadian Mental Health Association, Ontario Division, which coordinates the course.
Filippo also participates in an ENRICHES initiative called the Friendly Visiting Program, part of North York Community House’s Newcomer Connections for Senior Caregivers. “The program is for isolated caregivers who are newcomers, immigrants and residents of northwest Toronto,” says Stephanie Conant, project manager of NCSC. “We matched Filippo with Helen, a trained volunteer mentor.”
Once a week, Filippo and Helen meet at a public library or talk by phone about what Filippo needs: which courses might improve his English, where he can go for his high blood pressure — anything to help. Helen once accompanied him to his first doctor’s appointment for his knees.
Caregiving is a universal experience. Almost everyone ends up caring for someone at some point and ends up asking themselves what so many others have asked: How long can I do this? How long can I be so alone? Will I never give up?
“The program is a privilege,” Filippo says. “If I need something, I have the opportunity to ask. The programs are important. I’m thankful.”
Alex Gillis is an investigative journalist and author who’s written for many of Canada’s mainstream publications. He’s also worked with community- and international-development organizations.
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