November 23, 2005

Telephone help line relieves stress for caregivers

by K.C. Jaehnig

(Editors, note: November is National Family Caregivers Month. This year's theme is "Caring every day.")

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- Country folks will tell you that popping in every evening to make sure Uncle Fred has a hot meal or taking old Mrs. Young from across the way into town for groceries twice a week is just being neighborly. Maybe they do it differently in the city, but around here, that's just what folks do.

"We find a lot of the people we talk to don't consider themselves caregivers — they don't identify with that role, though by all definitions, giving care is what they do," said Kathleen Chwalisz (pronounced SHWALL-iss), an associate professor of psychology at Southern Illinois University Carbondale.

It's all a little frustrating for her and colleague Stephanie Dollinger (DOLL-en-jer) who two years ago set up a free program, funded by a research grant from the National Institute of Aging and the National Institute of Nursing Research, designed to make sure that people caring for elderly friends and relatives in the state's 13 southernmost counties took care of themselves as well.

"Over the last 10 years, cases of elder abuse in Illinois have been increasing, with a good percentage of those who abuse older folks being caregivers," Dollinger said.

"That's one indication of how stressful that position is. I think our service is definitely needed — especially in terms of prevention."

Their Tele-help Line for Caregivers (TLC for short) dispenses toll-free over-the-telephone training and comfort from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. seven days a week. Assistance varies, ranging from simple referrals to helpful resources for one-time callers to a smorgasbord of services and strategies dished out over eight weeks and set up to solve problems and teach coping skills.

"It's designed to be flexible to respond to real-world needs, and because it's a telephone service, it's done on their schedule," Chwalisz said. "It's hard for caregivers to get out and attend things.

"We have been very successful in how we deliver each of the components so it relates to the caller. We teach them the skills using their own problems so they can apply those skills immediately. We talk about the first steps, they go and do those steps, then they report back on how it worked and what they learned."

Because Chwalisz and Dollinger themselves hope to learn what kinds of help benefits caregivers the most, they've sweetened the deal by offering to pay those who use the service and fill out three feedback surveys. Clients can get $80 in gift cards for completing all three.

Despite that, and what Chwalisz calls "a frightening amount of marketing" aimed at letting churches, pharmacies, doctors, hospitals and fairgoers learn about the service, only 67 caregivers have signed up since the program began. Both women find that troubling because they know they could help so many more. And both see the rural definition of care giving as a key stumbling block.

"You don't have to live with the person or provide 24-hour care," Dollinger said.

"Any time you take responsibility for any detail of another person's life, that's caregiving, and it adds some chaos to your own life. Our service seems to help relieve that stress, especially for those who have gone through the whole eight-week program. We can see a measurable difference in their distress level, and their general health seems to improve as well. They're taking better care of themselves."

Said Chwalisz, "We've also found on our six-month follow-ups that they continue to get better — the amount of stress they perceive in their lives is going down. Several of our clients have kept in touch. They tell us they're continuing to use the skills they learned — that's one of the indicators of how successful this program has been."

People would benefit most, the women say, if they called the helpline before crisis overwhelmed them. Best-case scenario: treat it like a flu shot and go before you need it.

"With just a little investment of time now, we could give people some skills now that would make it easier for them later," Chwalisz said.

"Even if you're not care giving now, the odds are you will be sometime."

People who live in Alexander, Franklin, Gallatin, Hardin, Jackson, Johnson, Massac, Perry, Pope, Pulaski, Saline, Union and Williamson counties can call 1-866-438-7852 toll free; in the Carbondale area, call 453-3407. E-mail the service staff at or visit them on the Web at