A 'Blessing' for Children Who Parent

Sonia Ruiz Stafko visits her mother, Emma Guardiola, at Braddock Glen senior center.
Sonia Ruiz Stafko visits her mother, Emma Guardiola, at Braddock Glen senior center. "It's a blessing," Stafko said of the county services, for which Fairfax spends $66.2 million a year. (Tracy A Woodward - The Washington Post)
By Chris L. Jenkins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 11, 2007

Sharon Underwood knew she had made the right decision to have her elderly mother move in with her three years ago.

No longer would Underwood have to travel 80 miles to the Shenandoah Valley to check up on her, and mother and daughter could spend quality time with each other consistently for the first time in years.

It wasn't until Underwood heard her mother, Gladys Copperthite, fall while heading to the bathroom in the middle of the night that Underwood fully realized the awesome responsibility she had taken on.

A month earlier, while Underwood was running errands, Copperthite was taken to a hospital. When Underwood returned to her Fairfax County home, she didn't know what had happened and spent a few frantic minutes looking for her mother before neighbors said she had been taken to a hospital.

After those experiences, Underwood said she thought she might be in over her head.

"Soon after Momma came to live with us, I began to be concerned about my limitations as a caretaker. . . . It's a huge responsibility," Underwood said of her first several months caring for Copperthite, 84, in her home near Falls Church. "It got to the point where I would worry when I did something simple, like go to the bank or grocery store."

So Underwood, 59, reached out to the Fairfax Area Agency on Aging. The department provides a variety of services to a group growing almost as quickly as the senior baby boomer population: family members who take care of relatives in their homes.

To address the increasing needs of family caregivers, the county has set up support services to help residents adjust to the stresses and maintain their daily lives. The county has allocated $66.2 million a year for all senior programs across several agencies, up from $51 million in fiscal 2006.

The family caretaker services include in-home case management, in which a county social worker visits to assesses what families need; senior day centers, which offer a variety of services; and meals on wheels. The county also offers services to give family caregivers a break. Caregivers can have a worker or volunteer come to the home, or they can drop off their charges at a center.

The county also has seminars to help caregivers plan and manage their lives.

The county's services, whose costs are based on the senior's income, augment those that private companies and organizations provide to thousands of residents. The services are designed to help families keep their elderly members in the community and out of institutions such as nursing homes.

Fairfax officials said they provided in-home services to 4,300 people from July 1, 2006, to June 30. They also provided other services, including phone counseling, seminars and transportation, to about 6,700 people in that time.

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