Sherree Preston, who lovingly tends to her husband, is one of some 850,000 unpaid caregivers in Washington. Sound Generations, a nonprofit aided by reader donations to The Seattle Times Fund For The Needy, lends her practical and emotional support.
The day after Sherree and John Preston shared their first kiss, suspended in a slow dance, they decided to get married.
They met while working for the Internal Revenue Service in Seattle. For more than two decades after that embrace in 1993, the couple lived and worked all over the country. They were an active pair; John liked to golf, camp and fish.
Sherree organized fundraisers, cooked for shelters and served as president of the Association for the Improvement of Minorities’ local chapter.
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But since John was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, and Sherree with multiple sclerosis, life has slowed.
They spend most of their time at home in Renton, where Sherree, 63, cares 24 hours a day for her 78-year-old husband, a strong-willed former Marine who once had the somber job of accompanying the bodies of Marines to their loved ones during the Vietnam War. Now, unable to drive or live independently, John spends much of his day watching courtroom reality shows on TV, said Sherree.
She tries to keep his routine intact. She cooks three meals every day, monitors his insulin levels and tends to all his personal needs — all while experiencing pain in her legs that sometimes pulls her to the ground.
“It’s one of the hardest things I’ve done, and I was a criminal investigator (with the IRS) for years,” said Sherree.
But it was much harder, she said, before Sound Generations entered the picture.
To help unpaid caregivers such as Sherree cope with the isolation and stress, the nonprofit’s Family Caregiver Support Program offers free classes, monthly support groups and other resources. Through the organization, Sherree met a social circle of caregivers to confide in, and received a referral for free housekeeping services.
Sound Generations is one of 12 organizations helped by The Seattle Times Fund For The Needy. Reader donations go directly to helping people in the community.
The support program, which started in 2000, serves about 325 people a year throughout King County. There are about 850,000 unpaid caregivers in Washington, officials at the state Department of Social & Health Services (DSHS) estimate.
DSHS funds the aging and disability services agencies in various counties, which in turn fund nonprofits like Sound Generations. The department served 6,611 people last year through its own caregiver support programs and those of local agencies. Eighty percent of those people are helping someone diagnosed with dementia or suspected to have memory loss, said Kim Boon, dementia-care services program manager for DSHS.
Once a caregiver contacts Sound Generations — or gets a referral to the organization — she or he is connected with one of the program’s three caregiver advocates.
The advocates make home visits to help determine what each caregiver needs. Sometimes help comes from Sound Generations’ other programs, such as Meals on Wheels, and its free fitness and transportation services.
If the situation requires services beyond what Sound Generations can provide, the advocates connect the informal caregivers to agencies that can provide affordable assistance.
“The main thing I find is that they’re exhausted,” said Toni Crutchfield, who has been a caregiver advocate for 17 years. Many call her seeking respite care for a few hours a week, a service provided by King County Aging and Disability Services, the support program’s main funder, or Crisis Connections, the county’s crisis line. But in other cases, her job spans beyond just the referrals and monthly support group she facilitates.
Crutchfield once called a doctor’s office to get one of her clients an appointment. If a primary caregiver becomes ill, she arranges respite care for their loved ones.
For Sherree, who heard about Sound Generations through a friend, the social circle she’s found through classes and support groups has been critical. Throughout the week, she can now call new friends who face the same struggles she does.
She also attended a six-week class the organization created for caregivers called “Powerful Tools,” which teaches self-care practices and strategies for better communicating with loved ones. Sherree is starting to get respite care, but from another provider.
Though Daphne Jones is no longer her husband’s primary caregiver, she’s been going to Crutchfield’s support group for years. The group, which is open to anyone, meets monthly. This month, Jones said, they sang Christmas music together.
Jones, who retired from her job as a family-support worker for Seattle Public Schools to take care of her husband, David, in 2012, said the group has provided emotional support since her husband moved to an adult-care facility.
She’s also been able to encourage and share stories with others just starting their caregiving journeys.
“Both the caregiver and receiver tend to isolate themselves after a dementia diagnosis,” said Jones, who serves on a Southeast Seattle Senior Center committee that plans events for people living with dementia. “But it’s important someone knows and cares what you’re going through.”
For more information about Sound Generations’ services for caregivers, call 206-448-3110.
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