Imagine waking up one day to find that the years you had committed to intensive caregiving for a family member are suddenly over. What do you do next? How do you focus your time and energy after so many long days caring for another?
Those were the kinds of questions that Sheryl Fairbanks and Warren Wolfe found themselves confronting.
Flash back to 2001. That’s when Sheryl took time off from her 25-year career as a project manager to care for her mother after heart surgery. Sheryl thought it would be for just a few months. But post-surgery, her mother began to suffer memory loss, and her father’s health declined. So did the health of her in-laws, Warren’s parents, so Sheryl began caring for them, too.
In 2009, Sheryl and Warren moved Sheryl’s mother into their Roseville home so they could provide around-the-clock care. Three-and-a-half years later, Sheryl’s mother died. Within 14 months, so did her father and her in-laws.
Despite the support of her husband, Sheryl emerged from caregiving exhausted, stressed and at a loss for what to do next. That’s when she and Warren decided to enroll in Evolve, a Vital Aging Network program that builds civic engagement and creates pathways for individuals to get involved in their communities.
Upon completing the eight-month program, Sheryl and Warren — motivated by a desire to share their knowledge of caregiving with others — joined the Roseville Alzheimer’s and Dementia Community Action Team, a volunteer group dedicated to helping people with dementia and their unpaid caregivers living in Roseville.
Before long, they recognized that other former caregivers, like them, were now asking questions of identity and purpose and struggling to reconnect with friends and community.
“We searched locally and nationally for a program for former caregivers we might replicate,” says Warren. “When we couldn’t find one, we decided to create one.”
He and Sheryl joined forces with Lori La Bey, founder of Alzheimer’s Speaks, and Sue Van Zanden, volunteer facilitator of a senior caregiver support group, and launched the Dementia Caregiver Re-Entry Initiative (DCRI).
For more than two years, DCRI has been holding monthly “gatherings” for spouses and adult children who have cared for a loved one with dementia.
“There’s never a set agenda, and the list of topics we cover is extensive,” says Warren. It includes everything from downsizing and home maintenance to shopping for one and wrestling with evening loneliness. And while facilitators come to each gathering with a topic in mind, the focus is always determined by those who attend. After all, they know better than anyone what they need — and what they can offer.
So, if you’re a former caregiver who is looking for support from people who truly do understand the experiences, joys, fears and concerns you’re dealing with as you re-enter your life post-caregiving, DCRI is now open to new members.
Bev Bachel is a freelance writer who advocates for teens and people 50+. She’s the author of What Do You Really Want? How to Set a Goal and Go for It! A Guide for Teens and a member of ARRP Minnesota’s Executive Council. One of her current goals? Teaching others the value of intergenerational goalsetting.