As the number of people who live in Virginia continues to increase, so does the number of those needed to care for a population that’s increasingly aging.
“You’re in a business that I’m afraid is not about to slow down,” Dr. Rodney Kibler said during a keynote speech last week at a two-day conference on elder care aimed at both professional and private caregivers.
The event, held in Charlottesville, was sponsored by the Geriatric Collaborative of Central Virginia. The organization was created in 2013 to help train professionals who care for seniors.
Topics included finding ways to make life better with people with dementia, how to help loved ones plan for end-of-life decisions and how to help caregivers with support and additional resources.
The Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service at the University of Virginia projects there will be 11,302 people over the age of 75 in Albemarle and Charlottesville in 2020. That number is expected to double to nearly 23,000 by 2040.
The projected increase is prompting health care companies to expand their reach in the community. The Blue Ridge PACE Center opened in 2014 in the Carlton neighborhood in Charlottesville.
“Blue Ridge PACE opened two and a half years ago and we’re locally partnered with UVa Health System and with the Jefferson Area Board for Aging,” said Betty Sharp, outreach manager for the Charlottesville center. “Our third partner is Riverside Health System.”
Sharp said the center’s number of patients increases every month as more people become eligible for nursing care. She said that translates to more demand for employees.
That is a need being eyed by many health care professionals in the region.
“We need more passionate and trained people to serve in the field of geriatrics both at the residential level, as well as in our hospitals and private practice,” said Sue Liberman, marketing director for Martha Jefferson House, a full-service retirement community.
Liberman said it can be hard to find qualified professionals, but the conference was intended to help bridge the gap.
“One of our speakers teaches in the UVa nursing school and she literally brought a table full of nursing students and I was thrilled because that’s where we need to start,” she said.
One of those students is Rebecca Wassell, a fourth-year nursing student.
“This conference was really important to empower caretakers and give them more confidence and more tools that they can use to help keep their mom or dad or loved one at home instead of having to put them in a nursing home,” Wassell said.
As the number of people over 75 increases, so will the number of people with a form of dementia.
“There are 70 different diagnoses of dementia,” Liberman said. “Some of them are common and some of them are not so common.”
Kevin Grunden, a speech pathologist at the Blue Ridge PACE Center, offered tips about how to deal with people whose ability to communicate is beginning to break down.
“You have to be calm and specific, and generally we use lower tones because people can’t hear the high frequencies,” he said. “These are the same people they used to be but they have just changed because of the disease.”
Grunden advised the caregivers present to watch for physical gestures that may indicate non-verbal communication. He said stress levels of caregivers can be reduced with better communication.
Megan Bailes, an occupational therapist at PACE, said training can help caregivers provide a better experience for those with dementia.
The thing with dementia is that we can’t fix the person,” she said. “But I don’t want that to make you think there’s nothing you can do.”
Bailes talked about how to set up an environment that will make it easier for people with dementia.
“As dementia advances, people struggle with their sensory environment,” she said. “They get overwhelmed by too much visual and too much noise.”
Bailes said families with members beginning to suffer from dementia can benefit by putting up signs in the house to help them get around familiar places that suddenly become foreign. She also said that removing dangerous items from the house reduces the likelihood of injury.
Liberman said the work can often be difficult and frustrating.
“Sometimes you only feel gratification after the patient has passed and they are at peace,” Liberman said. “Folks with a dementia or in older years where they become frail and fragile are so grateful for the attention and the camaraderie and the caring that they do receive, whether it be from family or [professional] caregivers.”