At 82 this caregiver now teaches others

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Bobbe Akalonu, 82, moves slowly and carries a cane. Elegantly dressed with her wide-brimmed black hat, she has places to go. The LA native has spent the last six years traveling every couple of weeks to USC to learn how to best support caregivers and their loved ones.

Akalonu doesn’t have a medical background, but many depend on her for guidance. She learned caregiving out of necessity, by watching after her own mom, who suffered from dementia before dying a few years ago. This experience gave her the desire to form a support group for caregivers like herself.

Each week, she facilitates a group of women caring for their own families who live in the vicinity of her South LA church. The program is a partnership between the USC Davis School of Gerontology and First A.M.E. Church.

Akalonu recognizes that as the population ages, works longer and has fewer children, the role of the family caregiver will change. “For me, it was just a matter of returning home, making up my mind about going to live with my mother so I could help her,” she said. However, when asked who will care for her, Akalonu wasn’t sure whether her family members would provide the needed help.

We sat down with Akalonu at the USC Family Caregiver Center to find out more about what it was like to care for her mom and why she wanted to help others.

Ruxandra Guidi: How did you become a caregiver?

Bobbe Akalonu: Around 1992, shortly after I retired, I became a caregiver for my mother who had developed dementia. I moved back to her home to be by her side. It turned out our situation was very common: You have siblings and they’re not pulling their weight. And since you’re in the home, the expectation is that you’re going to take care of mom. When I became involved with USC’s Family Caregiver Support Program, I was a little angry. Over the years, I’ve found that this is true for many other people in most situations, because the family has expectations and they don’t always work out a plan that says ‘I’ll do this, and you’ll do that.’ So as I was taking care of my mom, I went to one of the local senior centers and that’s where I was introduced to caregiver support. I found it completely useful, a new way to look at caregiving and the stresses and strains of taking care of a person as they age.

RG: What are some of the lessons you learned as a caregiver that you feel you weren’t prepared for?

BA: A part of what I learned were ways to communicate with her, not to try to bring her into my world, but to join her in her world. I learned to run with her mood changes, and it was a wonderful experience, because we just made up stories, and I was comfortable with that. If she had a crying spell, we found ways to incorporate that in our day. There were ways you could manage her dementia that didn’t require me getting upset. Now, when I meet a lot of individuals who are entering caregiving, I tell them: You wake up every morning with a blank sheet of paper, and you have to draw a picture based on what presents itself. So some days you can create extraordinary pictures, but most days are just a routine. I was ill prepared, and I had to do some things to make it tolerable. I couldn’t always navigate the situation, but there were excellent counselors and social workers available at places like the USC Davis School of Gerontology’s Family Caregiver Support Program.

RG: How did the caregiving program you created at First A.M.E. Church come about?

BA: I began going to caregiving meetings USC’s Family Caregiver Support Program, where we frequently spoke to what that we were experiencing that day, as opposed to some fictitious situation. At one point, the funding of our program took a serious dive; we were one of 11 centers across the state, so that meant we had to become very creative with things. I told myself—I’m a member of First A.M.E. Church, a very large church with a very effective missionary society. And it occurred to me that the missionary society might be a great way to serve the community and the church at the same time. At that time, around 2009 or 2010, I wrote a proposal and by 2014, we had a new minister who fully embraced the idea and has moved forward in allowing us to collaborate with USC in creating a caregiver support program that can be taken to all the churches in the USC area. Our door is always open; our intent is to provide a safe place. These women care about each other, they offer their own experiences. It’s a step forward for them as caregivers and families, because they’re talking to peers and each situation is unique.

RG: How important would you say is family caregiving to the African-American community? Is this a tradition that is getting lost?

BA: I believe that historically, the expectation in the community is that the women of a family will take care of the elders. But as you know, we have a uniquely different kind of generation now: You’ve got a “sandwich generation”, where children have left the home, started careers, and then returned to their parents’ home because of the economy. Their own children may be in elementary or middle school, so they’ve got some very serious stresses. For me, it was just a matter of returning home, making up my mind about going to live with my mother so I could help her. But now you have maybe a seriously independent elder who may have a stroke and may need to have someone to take care of him or her. And that may bring a kid back in the home. That son might be an only child, so he brings himself, his wife—reluctantly—and their children. So you’ve got a lot of adjustments there. And I don’t see the answer to that situation or that scenario: We’re ill prepared to deal with that level of stress in the home. We’re seeing an attitude of “It’s not my problem” or “I’m going to place mom in a home.” I’m hopeful that some of our culture remains, but right now, we’re dealing with a serious problem.