In a trail-blazing initiative, 25 Westchester County volunteers received certificates for completing a new program to help family caregivers make informed decisions to better care for their older or disabled loved ones.

The initiative - the Livable Communities Caregiver Coaching Program (L3C) - was started this year by Commissioner Mae Carpenter of Westchester County’s Department of Senior Programs and Services (DSPS).

Carpenter said the program was essential because of the rapidly growing number of families who find themselves in caregiver situations and need community support to meet their many challenges and responsibilities. Often, families are thrust into becoming caregivers without warning, perhaps if a spouse has a stroke or suffers an accident, she said. As a result, they often become stressed and overwhelmed. They may not know what to do first and the best places to call for help.

That’s where the Caregiver Coaches come in. They are stabilizing forces and sounding boards. Their training gives them practical information to become more knowledgeable about caregiving issues and concerns. Then, in turn, they can discuss various options with the caregivers. These conversations can empower the caregivers to set priorities and make thought-out decisions.

The pioneering L3C curriculum was developed by DSPS and Fordham University’s Ravazzin Center on Aging in West Harrison with input from an advisory committee of representatives from agencies and organizations that deal with older adults. The graduates – 21 women and four men – received their certificates in a ceremony earlier this month at the Ravazzin Center and are now being matched with family caregivers.

“I feel like we’re on our way,” Carpenter said.  “We’re out of the door in terms of getting supplemental assistance to families who have that major job of being caregivers.”

Irene Gutheil, a professor at Fordham in West Harrison and founding director of its Ravazzin Center on Aging, also said it was very gratifying to have reached this point.

“It’s great to see the fruits of our labors, to see the enthusiasm in the coaches and in the volunteers who taught the classes.” Gutheil said. “They’re ready to go out there and make a difference in people’s lives.”

The program start-up is funded through a grant from the Westchester Public/Private Partnership for Aging Services. The Family Caregiver Alliance says that a variety of innovative programs to help family caregivers – an underserved population - is an emerging trend.

Carpenter said DSPS’ proactive Caregiver Coaching program is the most comprehensive of its kind in the United States. It is part of DSPS’ Livable Communities project, its signature program, which has received national awards.  AARP has indicated it is one of three Livable Community models in the United States.

The curriculum the instructors used to train the volunteers was mostly written from scratch by professionals at the Ravazzin Center and other team members, said Gutheil.  The instructors were also volunteers - such as Jennifer Rabley from the Patton Family Foundation, who said teaching the class was “a healing and enlightening process.”

The curriculum helped the volunteers to understand the aging process and the physical and social changes it can bring as well as how to develop the coaching/caregiver relationship. They also discussed possible scenarios the Caregiver Coaches might encounter in their work and how to resolve them.

The volunteers received the  “Curriculum and Resource Guide” – a companion “textbook,” which  presented information on topics such as how  to make a home safe,  emotions caregivers may feel (such as depression, fatigue, anger and isolation) and why it is so important for caregivers to take care of themselves. It also has listings of telephone numbers and Web sites of local and national agencies and organizations.

While previous caregiver experience is not required to volunteer for the program, it happened that all 25 volunteers in the first class had been caregivers at some point. They volunteered for the program because they recognized the need for such trained individuals.

Anne Darby-Woodard from White Plains, one of the newly minted caregiver coaches, regularly lends a hand to the elderly people who are members of her church in Tuckahoe. Darby-Woodard said that the program is “an answer to a prayer” because it gives her greater understanding of their needs and how to best meet them.

Carpenter said the number of people 85 and older grew more than 24 percent in the past two decides and the population of people 100-plus grew even faster. Currently, one in five Westchester residents -- or 20 percent of the population -- is 60 years or older.  And by 2030, one of four people will be 60 or older.

Caregiver coaches are also needed, Carpenter said, because she has found in recent years that many people are not informed about Westchester’s housing shortage. 

“They say ‘We’ll bring Mom and Dad up from Florida, and they’ll be with us for three or four months until we find an apartment’.  But there are no apartments. So they become caregivers,” Carpenter said.

Carpenter told the graduates that they can use their new knowledge in one-on-one relationships or with groups of people, perhaps at a hospital, senior center or houses of worship.

The goal of the grass-roots, self-empowerment Livable Communities initiative is to benefit people of all ages and enable seniors to continue to live in their homes as they age with dignity, independence and civic involvement.

Caregiver coaches directly help to meet that goal by supporting the people who care for seniors. So Carpenter said that it would be a natural fit for some coaches to work with some of the county’s Livable Community Villages. There currently are 85 villages where “neighbors helping neighbors” is a way of life.

In addition to DSPS, the Ravazzin Center and the Public/Private Partnership, other sponsors are AARP, Visiting Nurse Services in Westchester and the Volunteer Center of United Way of Westchester and Putnam.

Gutheil said that she plans to try to quantify the success of the program after the coaches and caregivers have worked together for three months. For example, she would want to assess what  the coaches have learned from the experience. “We also hope to get funding to evaluate the program from the family caregivers perspective” she said, such as how it has helped them and how they like working with a coach.

DSPS is presently accepting applications for volunteers for its next class. Applicants should have an optimistic outlook and not be judgmental. They work with – not for – the caregivers and are not substitutes for professionals in the field. Nor do they assume caregiver tasks themselves or offer medical or legal advice.

The Caregiver Coaching course meets once a week for three consecutive weeks for a total of 12 hours. Participants must also attend monthly Caregiver Coach Conversations to discuss specific issues, their experiences and concerns. How much time each coach devotes to a family caregiver will vary and most of the contact will be by telephone. Candidates must make a one-year commitment to the program.

For more information, contact DSPS at (914) 813-6441 or .