Using Online Caregiver Forums: Some Observations and Thoughts

Caregivers need support groups but often find it difficult to get away from their responsibilities and attend an in-person group. Their available free time may be too small a slot, or may not match the time of a scheduled support meeting. The more overwhelmed and stressed the caregiver is, the less likely it is that this caregiver can reach an in-person group.

This situation is really sad because support groups reduce caregiver isolation and provide a safe forum to exchange stories, problems, and suggestions with each other. Attending even a few meetings can transform how caregivers perceive their situation; they start finding the challenges more bearable, the changed behavior is taken less personally, and they are able to use suggestions they get from others and even generate creative solutions themselves.

Given the practical problems related to attending in-person groups, we need to examine the use of online forums for caregiver sharing and support. I am using this blog post to share my observations and thoughts, and give my suggestions, based on a number of online support groups that I have been part of–some as an active participant, and some as a lurker.

There are many types of online caregiver forums. At one end of the range, there are large forums that have structure and moderation and are handled by a group of committed persons/ some volunteer organization, and continue for years. And then we have small, informal groups that some caregivers form to stay connected and support each other, with membership varying from five or six to around fifteen or so.

Let me first share my observations and thoughts about smaller, informal caregiver groups. If you have been part of such groups, I’d love to hear from you about your experiences and impressions…

In the last five years, I have seen many instances of caregivers creating their own online groups. Some groups emerged after caregivers met during some face-to-face support group meeting or caregiver training and decided to stay in touch online. Others emerged when caregivers happened to meet online and decided they needed to get together for mutual support, and therefore gathered a group by bringing in friends (and friends of friends) or using social media. These groups were relatively informal with no active moderation. While some members were volunteers or professionals were included, they were not present in the capacity of a moderator or administrator or even an expert, just present as members.

Firstly, the groups were typically very fast to set up. Some caregiver would tell another, let’s set up something to stay in touch, and then a few of them decided on a technological platform they all were comfortable with and plunged in right away. I’ve seen email groups and Facebook groups (but not bulletin boards) getting kicked off and working full steam within days of someone suggesting starting a group.

The initial momentum was heartening. Caregivers were clearly eager to get and give support and they openly shared their situations and problems, and were generous to each other while empathizing and sharing suggestions. Conversations were meaningful and it was clear that a rapport was building. Of course, the usefulness of the group depended on the members’ availability, involvement, knowledge, and degree of articulation, but definitely most members found the groups helpful.

However, the tempo faded after a while. Participation died down even though no one specifically unsubscribed. Some queries got no responses or just perfunctory responses. Queries stopped after a while. Some subsets formed when two or three caregivers began corresponding directly/ established phone contact, but the online forum was no longer active.

One typical characteristic of these small informal groups was the lack of detailed rules and active moderation. This initially added to the sense of friends getting together, an informal air, and worked in some groups, but not in others.

There were problems, too. Everyone was not happy with the group; some even got stressed by it.

Here’s one example. One caregiver (I’ll call her AAA) was handling an aggressive parent with dementia alone, day and night, and did not have an attendant to help. Siblings had moved away and would not call. None of the other caregivers were facing such a severe challenge; they had at least some family or helper support, and not all were actually handling the daily care tasks. When AAA would post her problems and others responded, she was very unhappy with the responses because she found the responses obviously impractical given her situation (take a break, get help from your sibling) or she felt dismissed because someone would tell her to lighten up (don’t take yourself so seriously, have a good laugh instead, you’ll find it funny when you look back at it later).

After a few such responses, AAA wrote directly to me to say that the group stressed her because she had expected at least fellow caregivers to understand her problems, but now she felt even more isolated. She felt the group was not a safe space for her to unburden herself or seek help. She stopped participating there, and she and I continued our interactions on a one-to-one basis using email and phone. It was ironic and unfortunate that a support group increased her isolation.

I think one problem is the way we respond to online interactions. An in-person support group meeting is an immersive experience; caregivers see facial expressions and hear the emotion in the voices when problems are shared. Even if someone’s situation seems very different from their own, the face-to-face interaction makes it easier to pay attention and feel empathy. Selecting an appropriate response is easier, and it is easier to see when to avoid humor or realize what could sound preachy or trite or judgmental. Suggestions and comments are therefore better worded, longer, and supplemented by gestures and facial expressions that reaffirm the spirit of support.

On the contrary, in an online forum, people may not read posts/ mails carefully, or may type a hasty reply without grasping some key facts from the original post, or may sound harsher than they intended to. Or, even if they write well enough, the person reading it may be oversensitive about some phrase or suggestion, and feel hurt.

My impression, based on my (limited) experience, is that small, informal online groups function better if the members have met each other or talked to each other before interacting through the forum, because even a few earlier interactions or in-person meetings make them more willing to share experiences and create trust. They are also less likely to take offense or interpret responses as put-me-downs.

The problem AAA faced is only partly because of the characteristics inherent in the online mode of interacting. There are other factors, too. We use the word “caregiver” as if all caregivers were the same, but there is a vast diversity in caregiver situations. A small, informal online group of diverse caregivers does not include enough members who can understand and support each other for every type of care situation.

Another thing that made me uncomfortable in some of these groups was when members posted specific suggestions and advice on medication and alternate treatments. These alternate approaches were projected as medically sound, but were recommendations that I knew were scientifically suspect. Data posted to counter the claims was seen as obstructing “helpful” advice. I felt that this was the sort of situation that would typically warrant intervention by a knowledgeable moderator, but the group was not structured for moderation.

None of the groups inducted new members except for a token few in the beginning. Meanwhile, existing caregivers “moved on.” Caregivers don’t need help from the group once the person stabilizes and they get the knack for handling the situation. Or if the person reaches a different state for which the existing support group is irrelevant. Or the person dies, and the caregiver has to resume a career or rebuild a life. My impression was that existing members were not keen on new members because that would be adding an unknown factor in a group that had some sort of rapport.

Let me now share some observations based on a much larger, structured group with formal rules and guidelines on what sort of posts and language are allowed, and with moderators overseeing group functioning. Members include several caregivers coping with diverse care situations.

As in the smaller groups, I saw the participation of individual caregivers change a lot over time. Some rarely posted; others posted actively for some time but then reduced participation or even stopped it; some were sporadic in participation. However, as the number of caregivers was very large, and as new caregivers kept joining, the interactions remained vibrant and helpful. No query remains unanswered. The moderators, too, actively participated and keep the flow of exchanges going.

No group can be free of misunderstanding, and I did see occasional posts that seemed judgmental or harsh but usually some other member or moderator responded almost immediately to express enough empathy with the original poster and related query, thus diffusing any possibility of hurt. Inconsiderate comments were not tolerated. Spam messages or misleading promotion of dubious cures were similarly handled by moderators and other group members.

As I write mainly out of concern for caregivers in India, I must note one problem: the membership in the larger caregiver forums is usually from outside India, and many of the queries and comments assume a very different culture and very different types of system and support. Discussions on end-of-life care, legal and financial issues, use of services, availability and regulation of helpers, all are based on a very different set up. That means many suggestions can be used only partially.

So what can I suggest caregivers in India who are looking for online support?

Firstly, online support groups as such are definitely worth considering. Online groups provide 24×7 availability of a forum to post. The sense of community helps. You may get empathetic responses and feel less isolated, and you may get some useful responses.

If you already know some other caregivers with whom you share some trust/ rapport, getting together and creating an informal online group is worth considering. Of course, expectations need to be limited, and such groups may not suit caregivers whose situation is very unusual and different from that of all the existing members. And members need to understand that such groups cannot be depended on for medical advice.

Also, please do look at existing dementia forums/ caregiver forums run by volunteers/ organizations/ groups of concerned persons. They will reduce your sense of isolation and give you some idea of the problems and solutions others use. Even when the exchanges in such forums don’t always suit your context, they could contain useful pointers. Also, look for online support groups set up for special situations, such as for specific types of dementia (Lewy Body, FTD).

A good approach is to join multiple groups, and understand which type of need each of them can meet. Use these groups depending on the fit, participating according to where you feel comfortable sharing your problems and also sharing your suggestions for the problems others face.

Here are a few things to keep in mind before participating in an online group.

Groups have different degrees of privacy, and even if a group is supposed to be private and if posts are kept private and confidential as per the technical platform used, ultimately the actual implementation depends on the other members, too. If you are posting something very personal, and are very particular that no one should be able to link your posts to you, consider groups where you can use a pseudonym and do not share details that could identify you.

Some groups (such as groups on Facebook) may be confidential, but you need to enroll with your real name. Members can click through your name from a post you made in the group and see your public profile. Keep that in mind if that seems to be a problem to you.

Also, in very large groups, keep in mind that your family members and friends (or their friends) may also join. Keep that in mind when posting details or rants.

Well, those are my thoughts and observations related to caregivers considering online support groups, and I would love to hear from you about what your own experiences have been on the effectiveness and usefulness of such groups, or your suggestions to caregivers on this.

If you are a concerned person trying to help persons living with dementia, you may be considering setting up an in-person group or an online group. I have created two draft documents that put together my thoughts on what setting up and running online groups and in-person groups involve. Both these documents are available online and also for download, and you can refer to them. I would appreciate any comments you have, so that I can refine the drafts and release improved versions. The page where you can view the documents or download them is here: Create dementia care support groups (includes download). The two individual documents are available for download at Setting up and maintaining an online caregiver forum to support dementia caregivers (PDF file) and In-person Dementia Support Group Meeting Guidance Document (PDF file).

I really would like to hear from you, either as comments below or as an email (check my contact page to know my email id).

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Working for the dementia care domain: what next? (Part 2 of a two-part blog entry)

I am currently trying to decide the focus of my future dementia-related work. I have limited energy and time available for dementia work, and so I need to make deliberate decisions on where to use them. Keeping my current online resources usable and relevant needs some ongoing effort (content updates, back-end maintenance etc.) and I also have to tackle queries I get, but where should I put my additional time and energy? Should I improve these existing online resources by adding similar content or enhancing existing content? Or should I work on something different?

(This is the second part of a two-part blog entry: The first part can be read here: Working for the dementia care domain: my journey over the past six years or so (Part 1 of a two-part blog entry))

Fact is, I have many vague, unformed ideas, and there is no way I can explore all of them (let alone implement them all). I would like to make choices where I may be effective. And what is effective? I’m not sure how to define or determine that…but I assume effective choices will be the ones that create useful artifacts and efficiently use my skills and suit my personality. So here is what I know about my way of working and thinking.

I am an introvert and am most productive when working at my desk, doing intense work. I am not a socializer by nature. While I meet people and participate in events sometimes and enjoy such meetings, they also drain me. My choices need to exploit my ability to do concentrated work alone, and cannot depend on my “networking” or creating organizations or services or working in large teams. I am unambitious and don’t do well under pressure or targets. I can’t stay sane and productive in a competitive environment.

I want to remain focused on creation of content about dementia and care, suitable for persons in India. I am talking of content that can be directly understood and applied given our culture and context in India, and content that uses Indian metaphors, examples, language, etc. My experiment of creating material and the viewership tells me that this is a worthwhile target, with special mention of material created in Hindi, which has had over 30,000 views. Unfortunately, I don’t know of others who are convinced enough about this to actually actively create such content (usually, they refer people to a few well-known links from different countries without reading the articles/ manuals they are recommending). All this makes me feel I have even more reason to work in this area I consider important.

I believe technology is under-exploited for spreading information and providing support. I’m not an expert in technology, but I’m not afraid of it either, and I don’t hesitate when it comes to learning more about possibilities or implementation. I have picked up whatever technology I have need for my work so far, and am not scared by the thought that I may need to explore more technology options for some ideas I have. The potential of technology excites me and fascinates me, and is definitely something I’d consider while looking at options.

Productivity and effectiveness are major criteria for me. While I am willing to write and create material, I am a slow writer, and so I need to be careful about which writing projects to pick up. It would be silly to start something that requires several months unless I am sure I can do it, and that it is a better project compared to my other options. Making effective choices was not a major criteria in earlier days when I had no experience about such work, and not many ideas. But now I have many vague ideas and need to carefully select which to pursue.

I need to either locate a peer group or find some other way to brainstorm and evaluate ideas. So many things need to be done in the dementia domain that I cannot pick a random flavor-of-the-month are of work every month. Choices matter. Idea generation is not enough; I need good ways to perform idea evaluation and selection.

Over these past years, I’ve been in touch with many volunteers and wannabe volunteers who seem interested in dementia or caregivers or both. Usually, though, dementia is not their prime area and their approach is typically based on extroverted, networking-based solutions. They focus more on areas like “active ageing” and may even dilute or remove their overwhelmed-dementia caregiver focus over time. Some work in so many areas that I’m not even clear what their focus is. Understanding, measuring, or improving effectiveness is often not a concern. This means I do not have enough in common with them to discuss/ exchange ideas for my kind of involvement, as I focus only on dementia care.

Ideally, I’d like a reasonably-sized peer group of like-minded persons to remain motivated for my work and to discuss my ideas, joys and frustrations, but I have not yet found this group. I do have some friends with similar values, but they are scattered, not working in my focus area, and busy with their own initiatives and ideas. I can no longer assume I will manage to find an active peer group, and this lack affects my ability to process my ideas and act on them. It affects my pacing. I have no idea how to fulfill this gap.

I need enough time and energy for other (non-dementia) activities to get the emotional satisfaction I need When I first started blogging, I did that as catharsis, but as I increased my work and began actively helping others, I assumed I would get ongoing satisfaction and friendships. That’s not quite how things turned out. While I’ve had some interesting interactions and friendships with caregivers, our paths start diverging because I continue to work in dementia and others move on to their own areas of priority, leaving fewer areas of common interest. Interactions reduce over time. And while I am in touch with many concerned persons/ volunteers, again, most of them have very different interests and priorities and we don’t have enough depth of interaction for these to satisfy my need for intense friendships and emotional connection.

Dementia is not a cheerful area to work in. While some changes can improve the quality of life of the person with dementia and the family, there is an inherent downer in seeing someone fade out, stop responding, die. There is loss. There is grief. There is helplessness. Suggestions can make some difference, but the basic nature of the problem remains. People don’t contact me to share any good news; they contact when they are overwhelmed, stressed, unhappy. I find it frustrating to repeatedly see families face the same type of problem. I know how little the current support is, and how slow the rate of improvement in support systems and facilities is. While I feel some satisfaction when my suggestions and work are useful to others, this is overshadowed by my sense of helplessness and frustration. As this situation is unlikely to change, I need to spend time doing other (non-dementia) work or activities so make me feel connected and emotionally satisfied. I need to factor this in while seeing how much time I have available for dementia work.

Given my overall time/ energy availability, I have to choose whether to continue work to enhance my existing body of material, or whether to pick up some different type of content preparation. My impression right now (and this may change) is that my existing body of work can continue to help people so long as I do ongoing maintenance on it. It is reasonably complete as a unit of information for my target profile. (Some links to my existing body of work and recent viewership data are available here)Adding more material to it would be nice, but I believe I have reached the point of diminishing returns when it comes to investing time and effort in expanding my existing body of work. I am therefore interested in exploring whether I can work on a different, important area. However, I also need to remember that it takes me a lot of effort it to overcome self-doubt when venturing into any new area; any new venture/ project I consider should seem worth that emotional cost.

In my opinion, the most important aspect to address is dementia awareness, because awareness is pathetic in India, and awareness is the foundation on which everything else rests. I think we need ways to spread awareness about dementia amongst people who are not looking for information on dementia, and we need to reach out to multiple cross-sections of society. I am interested in seeing whether I can contribute to increasing dementia awareness. However, typical awareness campaigns include advertisements, walks, celebrity involvement, speeches, etc., and my personality does not match the skills needed for any of these. So my challenge is, can I contribute to spreading awareness given my personality and skill profile? Can I, as a self-funded solo worker, do something?

My current, tentative plan is letting myself freely think about potential areas of contribution rather than staying within some conventional framework. I’ve been using technology, specifically, the Internet, as a means for contributing for the last several years; developing material and making it available using the Internet also suits my personal work characteristics, and maybe, just maybe, I’ll find a way to extend this to work on some new area I consider important (such as dementia awareness). Maybe a few months down the line, I’ll have some idea on what to do.

And of course, if you have any suggestions that seem to fit my basic personality traits and my inclinations, please share them.

(This is the second part of a two-part blog entry: The first part can be read here: Working for the dementia care domain: my journey over the past six years or so (Part 1 of a two-part blog entry))

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Working for the dementia care domain: my journey over the past six years or so (Part 1 of a two-part blog entry)

It’s over six years since I started sharing my experiences and thoughts on dementia care, and it has been a strange, unexpected journey. As I step back a bit to consolidate, I’m using a two-part blog post to document what I’d done so far and what I am considering for the future.

In this part, I write about what I’ve done so far, what influenced my choices about sharing and my chosen way of sharing, and some data on where I am right now.

The unplanned beginning

My mother’s dementia symptoms had no clear onset; they crept up and kept growing till they took away pieces of her life and mine. I was clueless, unprepared, and unsupported. The dementia symptoms were devastating enough, but the lack of awareness and support around us made coping far more difficult. Even when my mother’s dementia reached mid-stage and she required full-time attention and availability, people around me were disbelieving, critical, or busy in their own work and priorities. Sometimes my mother and I would end up spending stretches of days with no one but each other for company. I was perpetually exhausted.

I began a few tentative blog entries around mid-2008, just to feel less alone. I didn’t expect anyone to read what I wrote; I didn’t even want anyone to read it. My sporadic blog elicited occasional emails from persons saying they could relate to the situations I described in my posts. The catharsis provided me enough relief to become more proactive about my caregiving role. I read more books, even attended a conference and some caregiver training. I realized that, like me, many caregivers experienced isolation and overwhelm. I began thinking, “No one should be so alone through such stuff,” and then, “Would my sharing my experiences help?”

The nature of my participation began changing slowly, over the months. Whereas earlier I read books, and attended courses and support groups to pick tips for myself, I began doing so to share with others and support them. I equipped myself by reading voraciously, exchanging ideas whenever I could, and even attending a “master trainer” course, intended to “train the trainer.” My understanding improved, I felt more involved, and my canvas widened.

I was still my mother’s primary caregiver. I was still performing the actual care tasks on many days, and coordinating them on others. I had to remain available all the time for exceptions/ emergencies at short notice. But my support had improved somewhat because my husband had managed to reduce his travel and workload to be available sometimes. Also, I had finally got a competent attendant who genuinely cared for my mother. She often went on long, unscheduled leave, plunging me at short notice into 24×7 hands-on care, but when she was in town, I could take out a few, relatively worry-free hours for other work.

So there I was, feeling more involved and determined to do my bit, but also predominantly home-bound, often tired and sad. Given my situation, blogging seemed the best way to continue contributing; I would add an entry here, and entry there. If I could be sure of my support systems for a specific date, I would even take up the responsibility of conducting an awareness or caregiver training session.

The pieces of work added up

My online work has essentially been built as a series of small steps, all done from my desk at home. I picked up work I could usually break up into pieces I could squeeze into available time, stopped when I was busy with care and other responsibilities, picked up when I had some spare time or energy. I could pace my involvement. Working from home was also suitable because I am an introvert and somewhat of a social recluse. While I enjoy company, I can enjoy it only in small doses; too much interaction tires me. But I can work for hours at my desk.

My blog was a collection of random personal thoughts, and as my blog picked up pace, I began thinking about the lack of structured material. I had always been unhappy that the available material on dementia care was not tuned for India because it assumed a different social context, a different culture, and a different level of institutional support. I thought about creating more suitable material but lacked the confidence to proceed. I was also unsure whether I’d have the energy to do a reasonable coverage. It seemed too vast a topic, and though I was better informed now, at times I felt like a helpless caregiver, not someone confident enough to undertake such a project.

Even so, I sometimes caught myself mentally drafting material suitable for a caregiver in India, written from a caregiver perspective. And then, one day, I thought of a structure to fit those (still only in my mind) pages. I already had a personal site, and I could add a section on dementia to it. It was just a matter of typing what was in my mind. I took the plunge. A fortnight or so later, I had created a section on dementia on my personal website. This was around the beginning of 2010. I felt so diffident about my audacity (of creating material) that I didn’t do much publicity, and was scared someone would read the pages and find them useless or bad.

But the stream of ideas would not stop. I felt I should have done more pages, a better and more complete job. And I felt that dementia care in India was a large and important topic that deserved a site of its own, not merely a side-show on a personal site.

As before, I was not sure whether I wanted to do the work. I had no idea whether it would help anyone; I had absolutely no reason to believe anyone would even bother to read it. On some days I was scared that if I set up a website and no one came, my work would be a waste. On other days, I was scared that I would create something awful and full of mistakes and that someone (huge and powerful and authoritative) would publicly humiliate me for being presumptuous enough to create a website. I was apprehensive whenever I thought of it, which was often. Because, again, I was mentally drafting more and more pages of what such a site could contain. Ideas abounded, as did doubts. The site would need some illustrations; could I draw them? The site should include interviews; how would I get them, why would anyone talk to me? Would I have the stamina to put together so many pages? My caregiving responsibilities were increasing as my mother was now almost fully dependent; caregiving was overwhelming, too….Did I really need yet another stress in my life?

I think it took around four months of mental drafts and structuring before I felt my brain would boil over if I did nothing, and so I began actual drafting. And it took some more time before I took the plunge to ask a volunteer I knew for some help in identifying caregivers who may be willing to give interviews. Then I picked up pace and started approaching some caregivers and others on my own, too. Creating online material required learning a lot of technical stuff and I did it in small packets. I remained conflicted about the whole idea: I was scared that I would be visible, and scared that I would not. I would work in spurts, then stop, never quite sure I would actually let the site go live. But the matter was now there, the background work done. One day I told myself, see, if it doesn’t work out, I’ll just delete the site. It’s not like I’ve taken any funds from anyone or that I owe anything to anyone. No one needs to know that I tried something and failed.

So I tamped down my personal website section on dementia, and geared up to make the full-fledged website operational.

Dementia Care Notes went live in the later part of 2010, a site reasonably complete but somewhat different from what it is today. There was barely a trickle of visitors for several months. I thought I’d sunk in a huge amount of energy into something useless. Worse, some site features required a lot of ongoing effort. For example, that initial site included a section with commentaries and summaries on latest published research papers, as well as promptly updated summaries of dementia-related news from India. This type of feature sucked up a lot of energy, and I started regretting my decision to have a site at all. No visitors, and a lot of energy being spent. What a fool I’d been.

But there was no point pulling off the site, either. So I streamlined the back-end and rethought the content approach. I removed items I considered low “value-add” and also removed content of the sort already present at many other sites (research summaries, for example). I added more material specifically meant for caregivers in India. I expanded pages, and created and added illustrations. Since I didn’t have enough of a personal or “social network” contacts to help me spread the word, I began reading up basic concepts related to search engine visibility. Miles to go, and all that…

Dementia Care Notes was an English site. It took a while for me to realize that I should be considering a Hindi site, and also videos in English and Hindi. For every new type of content preparation and presentation, I went through the usual agony of hesitation, followed by weeks of mental drafting, and so on, before taking the plunge.

I began creating and adding English and Hindi videos to Youtube around later part of 2011, one video at a time, with the video releases often spaced out by months. (Two channels: my personal interviews and videos with information and suggestions for caregivers ). My Dementia Hindi website went live in early 2012. Sometime along the line I realized that some of my material may be interesting to volunteers who wanted to help caregivers. So I put together a section for volunteers, this time on my blog (currently at: Resources for Volunteers). I hesitated a lot for this, too, but then as always I thought, if it doesn’t work out, I’ll just delete the pages. And I kept uploading my presentations on Slideshare, too, just so they were available if someone wanted to have a look. Very recently, I also began posting on a Hindi blog.

My confidence has increased along the way as I was able to connect with many caregivers and others, and thus able to improve/ validate my understanding. I kept amending and improving my material alongside, and I now make it a point to periodically review all my website material to ensure it reflects whatever I know and can suggest based on my updated understanding. But I also know that I am not an expert and that my knowledge can never be complete.

Along the way I have ended up with more visibility than I feel comfortable with. This visibility has meant getting calls/ emails for an interview or so sometimes, or an invitation to speak at a conference or to coordinate a meeting. Being introverted and socially reclusive, I go through an agonizing process every time I respond–on one hand, I know that, given my concern about this area, I should speak up, but on the other hand, I want to curl up and hide. I end up speaking, but I need a lot of preparation time to psych myself up for the event, and I need a wind-down time to recover. Each such interaction drains me.

To create online resources, I have needed to learn several new skills; the effort has been substantial. I have done all the work alone, not just the writing. For example, I learned about setting up websites and hosting. I learned about WordPress and its plugins and themes, decided what would suit my site, etc. For illustrations, I had to conceptualize them, and learn enough about graphics packages to actually draw them. When I decided to create videos, I had to learn about audio recording and editing, and video recording and editing, screen captures, and so on. And then there were the loads of things needed to keep the site operational and safe and backed up and so on… As I did not know anyone else using a similar approach, I didn’t just have to learn the skills, I had to first identify which skills were relevant and locate suitable resources for them. The process was invigorating, but also somewhat lonely.

I didn’t just learn based on what I wanted to make, I have been doing a lot of exploratory learning, too, so as to understand the possibilities and have a wider perspective about the context as such. I keep myself informed on areas directly or indirectly affecting my dementia work. I keep up-to-date with discussions, books, papers, and reports on dementia care, and also do small courses on topics that ensure I can follow discussions reasonably well; this includes health and medicine related areas and also areas on possible ways to convey messages–a vast range of topics like social psychology, critical thinking, online instruction, technology and media, and so on. Part of this helps me refine what I am doing; part helps me glimpse at potential areas of work; and part of it never gets used, but I don’t know what will turn out to be useful and what will not.

Some data:

I have no targets as such, but I glance occasionally at what I’ve done to see where I am. Here’s some data (as of the day of writing this blog entry):

I also respond to emails and interact on social media with caregivers, and once in a while, participate in conferences or training programs or support group meetings. I end up interacting with many concerned persons–volunteers, students, others. I don’t keep track of that involvement, but a quick glance at my email folder shows the emails exchanged run into thousands. My one-on-one face-to-face interactions with caregivers also runs into hundreds. It’s frightening.

All said, the numbers I share above are not particularly large. Many persons have distinctly more impressive stats for their work, and bigger social circles, and more connections. Me, I’m constrained by my introverted, self-doubting nature, and my utter lack of targets and ambition. All that inspirational talk on “be the change” and “be positive” and how people want to “make a difference” doesn’t touch me; my sole motivation is a sense that I have no justification to waste my knowledge and skills. I cannot face myself if I know I could have tried to do something and I let my self-doubt hamper me. I may not end up being as bold as others are, but I try to stretch myself to the extent I can.

Someone once asked me, a few years ago, if I was satisfied with the stats and I had told him that, given that I had no reason to believe people would visit any material I prepared, the numbers were nice. The numbers were comfortably higher than zero, and zero is what the viewership would have been if I had chosen to not write. I marvel that I managed to get any audience at all, given that I was just someone typing away on her laptop.

That “it’s greater than zero” was not some cool, wise answer, or even a good one. It was a reflection of my utter cluelessness when I started work on dementia, my lack of a tangible target and my inability to have any dreams. I was a reluctant experimenter in an untried field. I had no baseline to use, no similar/ competing resource to compare myself with. The situation was trickier for Hindi material, which was a real shot-in-the-dark gamble. (When I see that the viewership of the Hindi material combines to over 30,000, I hope someone else decides that working in Indian languages is worth considering.)

My situation is different now. Even though I still have no targets and no basis for specific goals, I am aware that my choices involve trade-offs. I have too many ideas, far more than what I had when I started off. I know that chasing one idea, such as preparing a particular document, means I won’t be able to chase a different idea or prepare a different document. While I am now moderately comfortable with existing projects, I am also aware that, given my personality, I will go through an agonizing bout of self-doubt for any new project; it is a cost I pay for every initiative I take. I feel the need to make effective choices, because I know how limited my time and energy are. I’ll use the second part of this blog post for my thoughts on my future modality and effort.

Edited to add: The second part of this blog entry is now available at: Working for the dementia care domain: what next? (Part 2 of a two-part blog entry)

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Helping professionals appreciate the realities of dementia home care

I started sharing my experiences and thoughts on dementia and care online over six years ago. Even back then, I considered awareness to be the key component–that included informing the general public and persons handling services about dementia and related care. I didn’t realize then that even volunteers and professionals working in this domain, persons who were training caregivers and counseling them, needed to become more sensitive and informed about how tough it was to provide home care for someone with dementia.

I’d heard the advice that volunteers and professionals gave caregivers, of course. They taught relevant skills like communication, but the advice also included material I considered simplistic and impractical. Nor did they pay emphasis on how tough the caregiver adjustment would be, how mistakes were inevitable, how emotional the journey was.

Then, around three-and-a-half years ago, I heard a volunteer criticize caregiving families while addressing a group of would-be volunteers. This volunteer stated that families were “cruel” and “selfish” and blamed them because they did not take patients to doctors as often as the volunteer considered appropriate. Moreover, this person criticized caregivers for not spending enough time with the patients and not being creative enough, and compared this time and care to what professionals provided in institutional settings (the very, very few such facilities that exist).

I was stunned to realize the extent of this volunteer’s ignorance/ disconnect with home caregiving realities.

To me, the difference between the two settings–institutional and home–had always been obvious. In an institution, workers have opted for this career. They are trained, have the benefit of multiple specialists, and operate in a well-designed facility. They work for limited hours and have no concurrent roles and responsibilities while at work. They have no emotional past with the patient and are not traumatized because the deterioration is happening in someone they have know for years. And so on. Even a bit of thought would throw up a range of aspects in which the institutional care situation differs from home care. I could understand lay persons not appreciating this difference in situations, but I expected volunteers working in the dementia care domain to have a more realistic view. How could such a person be ignorant of the home care situation, and so judgmental?

Clearly, even trainers and volunteers in this domain needed to be informed about dementia home care realities.

I began putting together a note on the context of dementia home care in India. It took some pruning and prioritizing to and redrafting to create a short, compact version. I uploaded this note on slideshare.net at Dementia Home Care: Context and Challenges in India.

Initially I saw the note as something that volunteers and professionals may find useful to help home caregivers through relevant and practical advice. But later I realized that the note can also help caregivers. It could be used to get an idea of their role and how tough it may be. It could also help them understand what advisers may be assuming and know what they need to clarify/ explain in order to get pertinent advice.

The note, available on slideshare at Dementia Home Care: Context and Challenges in India, can also be viewed in the reader below.

I have continued to try and explain the realities of home caregiving to volunteers and professionals. This includes one-on-one discussions with volunteers when I hear them say something insensitive. If they seem open to listening, I share data and anecdotes on home caregiving challenges they may have missed. Sometimes I get a chance to present the family caregiver perspective to professionals in forums. Below, for example, is a recent presentation I made on caregiver issues and challenges.

The presentation, available on slideshare at Caregivers: Issues and Challenges Faced, can also be viewed in the reader below.

Much still needs to be done to improve the professionals’ understanding of home care realities. I continue to hear comments that confirm that even professionals who make presentations on caregiver stress have limited understanding of the range of issues and challenges and this results in their getting critical and judgmental, even blaming caregivers if the care is not happening in ways they feel is appropriate.

I think this incomplete understanding of home care realities is partly because caregivers are unable to share their situations with honesty and in sufficient detail. Multiple reasons exist for this reticence, and not enough is happening to facilitate bridging the disconnection between families and professionals.

One such incident happened a few months ago, when a professional who was talking about some caregiver query burst out in an obviously frustrated tone: “I don’t understand why caregivers get tired doing the work. Can’t they do the work without getting so emotional and involved? And why do they complain? They all chose to be caregivers, didn’t they? You chose to be a caregiver. You needn’t have been a caregiver if you didn’t want to.”

The person who said this is very active in this domain and meets patients and families regularly. Now me, I’m not a caregiver any more; my mother is dead. Even when she was alive, I had stopped needing support and empathy from professionals many years ago because I created my own emotional toolbox to cope. My first reaction at this outburst was extreme discomfort. I want to get away from this conversation. Then I paused because I realized that this person would be continuing to meet patients and families and would continue to advise them with this poor understanding of caregiver challenges.

I spent the next hour or so explaining things to this person using facts, concepts, anecdotes. Things such as how home care needed far more emotional adjustment and strength than institutional care such as what this professional gave. As for caregiving being a choice, I asked, “You say choice. What option do you think I had if I did not want to care for my mother? A choice means you think there are options. List the options for me.” Interestingly, this person kept repeating the “caregiving is a choice” like a mantra a number of times before realizing that there was no option, hence no choice.

The conversation caught me unawares. I had expected this profile of persons to not need any explanation. Fortunately the professional was a good listener and ended the conversation thanking me, saying, “I think I am beginning to see what you mean; no one ever talked to me about these type of problems before.” Clearly the professional had heard families express overwhelm but had not heard explanations of why they were overwhelmed.

To me, this confirms the Catch 22 nature of the problem.

Yes, most volunteers and professionals don’t appreciate home care realities. But not understanding persons of a different profile is a common problem. The fact is, most of the times, we don’t invest time and energy to truly understand the life situation of others. Also, we don’t find it easy to appreciate problems that others face–we remain caught up in our own world views and problems. And yes, caregivers obviously want to be understood and respected, but they are also unable to explain their situations, either out of reluctance and privacy, or because they don’t trust the audience, or because they don’t have enough time for sharing their situation.

Essentially, if volunteers and professionals do not understand and appreciate the home care realities, and if this stops caregivers from explaining their situation and problems, we have a logjam. Maybe if just a few families opened up, changes would begin.

I’m not sure whether to be hopeful or despondent as such; I swing between the two. Well, I’m doing what I can…

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Dementia and caregiving: More material in Hindi

Six years ago, I started sharing my caregiving experiences online as a form of catharsis, but this soon morphed into taking active steps to spread awareness about dementia and sharing suggestions/ information that could help dementia caregivers in India. The main reason I pushed myself to do what I could was the sheer paucity of material that Indian caregivers could relate to–material written assuming an Indian context.

Lack of material in Hindi was one of my concern areas. I tried involving others into creation of Hindi material, but no one stepped up to actually doing work (Alas, material doesn’t get created by clicking “like” on Facebook). I tried using paid translation services, but their translation was too literal and full of grammar and spelling mistakes and misleading phrases. So I began preparing material in Hindi myself–I created a full-fledged Hindi website on dementia and care, added a couple of Hindi videos to my youtube channel, and uploaded some Hindi stuff on my slideshare.net.

In the last few months, I put in another burst of work to prepare more material in Hindi. Here’s what I created:

A Hindi blog on dementia and care: While I’d initiated a Hindi blog a while ago, I had not been making posts in it. In May this year, I began posting more often on this blog, beginning with a topic I considered very important: Dementia names in Hindi डिमेंशिया को हिंदी में क्या कहते हैं. The blog now has 16 published posts, and I’m comfortable enough to now announce it here.

The blog is at डिमेंशिया (मनोभ्रंश) और सम्बंधित देखभाल.

A short, simple Hindi note on caregiving: This was the Hindi version of a simple caregiving note I’d written earlier. The Hindi note is uploaded on slideshare.net. You can view it at slideshare or in the player below.

Two Hindi videos on my personal experiences as a caregiver: One activity lying on my to-do list for a while was sharing my personal caregiving experiences in Hindi. I’d already created such videos in English. Talking about my personal caregiving experience is always difficult, and it took me a lot of rallying around to finally do the recording in Hindi. It was tough and draining. I finally selected out two segments of what I taped and uploaded it on my personal youtube channel at swapnawrites. (This is different from my other youtube channel, dementiacarenotes which contains videos with suggestions/ tips/ information for other caregivers, and is associated with my websites Dementia Care Notes/ Dementia Hindi).

Here’s the Hindi video where I share my mother’s dementia journey

(if the player does not load, visit this youtube link directly)

Here’s the Hindi video where I share my personal experiences and observations as a dementia caregiver

(if the player does not load, visit this youtube link directly)

So that’s what I’ve been doing to add my bit to Hindi material on dementia and caregiving. I am not fluent enough in other Indian languages to prepare material in them, and I hope others, fluent in various Indian languages, will consider sharing information and suggestions in them. I consider it a pity that most material in other Indian languages is material that was written for and by persons in countries other than India, because that material assumes a cultural context and level of support very different from what we face here, and hence not always practical for us here.

A request: If you are concerned about reaching audiences that read/ understand Hindi, please do check out the above. If you think they can be useful to others, please consider telling people about them, linking to them from your websites and blogs, and sharing them on social media. Thanks!

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For those concerned about dementia and caregiving in India

The poor state of dementia awareness and caregiver support in India continues to alarm me, but I also fear that many persons who can improve things are not doing so because they think that the required actions will be taken by others at some grand, country-wide level, often by the government or major NGOs.

I think that is wishful thinking and not dependable.

Choosing to make one area a national priority means choosing to pay less importance to some other area. Realistically speaking, not everything can be a priority. In a country like India, struggling with multiple basic problems in areas like health, education, law and order, infrastructure, etcetera, I have no basis to expect that dementia will be made a “national priority”. Surely child mortality, primary health care, basic sanitation, farmer support, poverty eradication, reducing school drop outs, and many, many basic causes are already contending for, and deserve more national attention, funds, and priority.

I keep encountering persons who expect the government to solve the problems faced by dementia caregivers. They expect the government to ensure hospital care and better diagnosis, set up multiple respite cares and day cares and memory clinics, have special wards in hospitals, etc. Alas, it’s not going to happen in a hurry. Dementia activists may talk themselves hoarse labelling dementia as an “epidemic” but I’m sure activists in other domains–domains like AIDS, cancer, diabetes, heart problems, child prostitution, malnutrition, and so many others–have their own catchy phrases which are as alarming or more. They, too, have compelling and visible statistics to support the use of such phrases–and often have more persuasive pictures, case studies, and statistics than what dementia experts can churn out.

In my opinion, it may be reasonable to expect and lobby for some basics that facilitate dementia diagnosis and care, like including dementia-related criteria in guidelines/ checklists for senior citizen related services/ homes, including dementia in curriculums of professions like medicine, nursing, adding dementia in illnesses for which concessions are available, subsidizing adult diapers.

But it seems unrealistic to expect the government to set up special, well-equipped day care and respite care centres for dementia when girl students are dropping out of school because schools have no basic safety or even toilets. And someone even suggested to me that the Government should set up “dementia villages” of the sort shown in these articles: Inside an Amazing Village and Wikipedia entry on Hogewey. Well, I can’t even begin to explain how unrealistic and unfair that expectation is…

So to me, this means that for anything beyond broad directives/ policies related to dementia, we have to depend on NGOs and on what we, as individuals and corporates can do. And we need to acknowledge that the number of persons willing to do work is very low, and therefore being effective and focused in our efforts becomes very important. My contention remains that the root to improvement is awareness. Ideally, I’d have liked some large, funded and committed organization to work on a well-designed awareness campaign, but I don’t want to succumb to the temptation of abdicating responsibility and waiting for the “they” to do this. Let’s all do our bit anyway. Maybe things will pick up.

Another thing that worries me is the danger of expending effort in areas that are not yet relevant in India.

The problem is that some of us, even those who know ground realities, get very attracted by discussions in esoteric circles of dementia activists from developed countries. We forget how much foundational work needs to be done in India before we can afford lofty dreams. We forget that, in India, we have yet to establish a foundational understanding of dementia, and our overall quality of life and social support and welfare schemes is not good. How can we justify aiming for a quality of life of dementia-affected families that is grander than what is normally found around us?

Sure, concepts like “dementia villages” and “dementia-friendly communities” are progressive, the “in” thing, and provide a more satisfying area of work compared to mundane problems like drafting caregiver material and making it available in multiple Indian languages. But can already-scarce experts afford to spend time and effort on serious and detailed discussions on such advanced topics when we have not yet discussed how to ensure that doctors know how to diagnose dementia?

Persons discussing futuristic and currently-inapplicable-in-India concepts often point out that the discussions will also result in more awareness and after some initial discussions, they will adapt the concepts for India and their work will include awareness type of basic areas. My concern is that most initiatives lose steam and run out of funds very soon. We therefore cannot squander initial momentum on discussions that will not result in improvements to those suffering from the pathetic state of affairs.

From what I have seen, this digression into currently-irrelevant concepts is a consequence of three factors:

  • Volunteers/ experts are often part of a vibrant world-wide community that discusses advanced applications and ideal situations with impressive and inspiring quality-of-life criteria, and hence these volunteers/ experts get drawn into professionally enriching dialogs and heart-warming concepts
  • They don’t pause to think that taking up one project of this sort also means not being able to take up some other project they could have done instead, and
  • They do not have sufficient, day-to-day contact with actual caregivers and patients and therefore are not personally inconvenienced by the ground-realities. They don’t, at an inner, emotional level, appreciate the day-to-day struggles of families coping with dementia. This distance means they do not experience an urgency to tackle the most pressing and immediately relevant aspects first.

Awareness is so poor that there is no way to tap the bulk of actual, hands-on caregivers. Besides, caregivers come in various stripes; the ones who most need help are not visible, not tapped, not participating in most dialogues. Patients who need the most help are the ones locked up in houses because of social stigma, or who remain undiagnosed or are labelled as crazy and shunned. So where are their voices, their concerns, their perspectives on what they need most and fastest? Where can we find persons diagnosed early enough to have insight into their dementia who may share their realities so that we can know what “friendliness” means to someone who actually has dementia? Don’t their opinions matter?

Yet I am not sure that locating persons with dementia and their hands-on family caregivers, and then listening to them, is considered as something to do before deciding what needs to be done first. I’m not even sure it gets due importance while actually working on grander projects.

Here’s what I feel: we need to get real about the situation in India if we want changes to benefit persons who need help.

We need to accept what we can expect from the government. We also need to accept that many things are pointless and unfair to expect. We need to honestly acknowledge the real status of families touched by dementia, across all economic and social status, across all geographical locations–not just upper middle class English-speaking families living in larger cities in some states.

Furthermore, we need to set aside expectations driven by international conventions and not let our priorities get warped.

Let me get this right: I am not saying there is anything intrinsically wrong about working on advanced concepts. I am saying, when resources are so scarce, then anything we pick up has an opportunity cost: something else that those resources (experts, time, corporate funds and goodwill) could have been used for remains undone. That is why we have to be careful in what we choose. If we had more volunteers, more experts and abundant resources we could have taken on projects of all sorts–both for providing basic dementia support, and for discussing advanced concepts that are not currently usable. But we have a severe shortage of people and resources in the dementia domain. We don’t have the foundation for advanced and ambitious projects like a “dementia-friendly community.”

Let’s at least reach a state when, if a family approaches a doctor, odds are that they get appropriate guidance. Or when a patient is taken to an emergency room, staff understands how unnerving this all must be to someone with dementia and knows how to be considerate. Let’s make information available in Indian languages. The list of such basics is a long one.

There’s another aspect: each contribution can help.

With so much that needs to be done, surely each concerned person can find some way to contribute? Especially as we know that there is no “they” who will wave a magic wand. Even as individuals, we can help others and add to the overall betterment of the dementia care environment. For example, we can help a caregiver by running some errands or providing a respite. We can talk more openly about dementia and improve awareness, making dementia and its care challenges visible. We can generally be more proactive and participative when sharing information and ideas. And maybe some of us have the time and energy to take up larger projects, work more visibly, share thoughts and ideas and aim for making a bigger difference.

So if you are concerned about dementia and caregiving in India, please think of what you can do for people whose lives have been, or may be touched by dementia. They will have a smoother ride because of your actions. And it’s not as if you are safe from dementia in the future; your life may be touched by it again. Actions you take today based on your concern could even help you in the future.

Related post: I had shared my thoughts on the importance of dementia awareness earlier, here: Need for well-designed dementia awareness campaigns

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Caring for someone with dementia

In November last year, a friend asked me to write a 700 word article on dementia caregiving for a souvenir. Though I’ve written extensively about dementia and related caregiving, the imposed word-limit forced me to weigh each sentence, each word. What should I include? What to exclude? While I didn’t manage to say all I wanted, I realized that a one-pager overview of a vast topic can be a relief after the rambling posts I typically make on this blog. So here’s the article, unchanged (I confess that I was sorely tempted to expand it, but I desisted :) ). Note that the article was written assuming very poor dementia awareness, as the intended readers were based in India.


Caring for someone with dementia

by Swapna Kishore

Family members, friends, and colleagues often want to support persons with dementia, but are unsure how to proceed. Below is a brief overview of dementia caregiving.

The first step is to understand the difficulties dementia patients face.

Most people don’t appreciate how much dementia affects the patient because they think it is normal for elders to have reduced brain functionality and memory loss. They think dementia problems are similar to the way most elders misplace keys or get slower at calculations.

The fact is, because of the cognitive decline in dementia, patients find it difficult to do even normal, simple activities. Amma skips lunch because she doesn’t remember how to heat the meal her daughter left for her. Grandfather gets cheated of his lifetime savings because he no longer understands financial transactions. Papa gets lost because he can’t remember where he lives. Grandmother has no idea how to open the bathroom tap. But family members assume such behaviour is laziness or carelessness because they don’t realise these problems are caused by dementia. When Amma withdraws, they say she is ‘giving up’ and any frustration or agitation is considered meanness.

However, once people understand how dementia affects the patient, they can find ways to help the patients.

Realistic expectations are essential for effective caregiving.

Families often hope treatment will make patients recover completely from dementia, and do not understand the limitations of medicines. They also think that if patients try harder, they will become normal.

Such unrealistic expectations create problems.

For example, family members insist that patients should remember things correctly and work faster. They ‘correct’ mistakes, criticise, get angry, or show disappointment. This confuses and distresses patients who are facing genuine problems and already trying their best. They become slower or may get agitated, which, in turn, upsets family members even more. This unhappy circle ends only when families accept the dementia reality and adjust their care approach based on realistic expectations.

Caregivers can look for ways to improve patient safety and fulfilment.

Once caregivers appreciate the realities of dementia, they are able to find suitable caregiving approaches.

Consider problems of communicating with the patient. Dementia patients may forget where they are and not even recognise family members. They get distracted easily. If caregivers understand these problems, they’ll know that typical communication tips can help: face the patient while talking, use eye-to-eye contact, use simple words and short sentences, speak clearly and calmly, and avoid complicated questions. If names confuse patients, point out objects. These and other suggestions can vastly improve communication.

Or consider ways to change the home. Signs pointing to the bathroom can help confused patients. Patients may feel safer walking around if clutter and hanging wires are removed. Grab bars may help. Suitable home adaptations make it easier for patients to do their tasks.

Better dementia understanding can also explain sudden changes, like the patient becoming inactive one day. If caregivers know that patients often can’t explain when they are unwell, they may notice the patient’s fever or sprained ankle.

Basically, patient behaviour provides clues that can be used to find solutions.

For dementia patients, every day is full of difficult tasks, and a predictable daily routine reduces stress. But like everyone, they like fun and want to feel useful. Caregivers who add suitable games and simple chores to the patient’s daily routine often find that patients are more cheerful and willing to do things.

Care has to be person-centric

Though there are similarities across patients, dementia affects individuals differently in terms of type and severity of damage in the brain, and how this worsens over time. Care must be adjusted according to the patient’s changing abilities, personality, past history, health, likes and dislikes, skills, interests, family, social environment, etc.

Dementia care involves heavy responsibility and hard work. Also, it is heart-breaking to see someone decline. Caregivers get exhausted, make mistakes, and may feel guilty, resentful, or depressed. Yet they do experience joy, especially when focusing on what patients can still do. Those fulfilling moments give caregivers the energy to do the work and accept the inevitable decline.


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