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Westchester County: Care Circles Are a Step Forward in Giving Back

Fewer and fewer family caregivers are available to help the growing number of older adults. Siblings may have passed away and children are more mobile than they were generations ago and might live out of the area or out of the state. Relatives may live nearby but they cannot "do it all," perhaps because they have a job or care for a young child. An AARP report(External Link) found that nationwide there are seven caregivers for each older adult but that number will drop to four to one as baby boomers age. As a result, many older adults are not able to age in their homes even though study after study has shown that is what the majority of older individuals want.

The Westchester County Department of Senior Programs and Services (DSPS) and its Caregiver Collaborative developed an innovative initiative in 2011 where volunteers team up to share caregiving tasks for an older adult. It's called the Care Circles of Westchester: Step Forward & Give Back program, and it is co-sponsored by the Westchester Public/Private Partnership for Aging Services.

A Care Circle is a group of volunteers who assist an older individual with the basic needs of daily living that cannot be met with public funds.

"These needs may include pitching in to do the laundry, run to the supermarket, give a ride to the doctor's office or to a program at the local library, walk the dog or simply provide companionship," said DSPS Commissioner Mae Carpenter. "Care Circles reduce isolation and create a (situation) that will provide the physical and emotional support that a family traditionally provides."

Often the effort of one volunteer such as being able to pick up medications at a pharmacy can make the difference between whether an older adult can continue to live at home or is forced to relocate.

Care Circles are essential in Westchester where 20 percent of the county's population is age 60 or older. Today there are an estimated 85 care circles in Westchester County, and their numbers continue to grow. Some of those care circles help older adults who live alone while others benefit older adults who live with their caregiver, such as a mother who lives with her caregiver daughter.

The Care Circles of Westchester story was recognized by an Innovations Award in 2013 from the National Association of Area Agencies on Aging. The Care Circle concept falls under the big umbrella of DSPS' initiative known as "Livable Communities: A Vision for all Ages - Bringing People and Places Together." The goal of the Livable Communities initiative, DSPS" signature program is to improve the quality of life for people of all ages and enable seniors to continue to live in their homes as they age. Because the approach of livable communities is "neighbor helps neighbor", the Care Circles initiative advances that goal.

There are, of course, many situations across the country where neighbors and friends volunteer to help older adults who live alone with many of these tasks. But what sets Care Circles of Westchester apart from the others is that each care circle is centered around a Care Circle Keeper, the "chief volunteer" who manages and coordinates what all the volunteers do to ensure all runs smoothly. This organized circle of support is what enables Care Circles of Westchester to offer a long-term solution.

The Care Circle Keeper matches the talents and abilities of each volunteer to particular tasks to help the person he or she is caring for. For example, if one volunteer especially likes to cook, he or she could help with meal preparation. If someone has a car perhaps he or she could drive the older adult to a doctor's appointments or just take him or her for a spin to enjoy some fresh air. The Care Circle Keeper also maintains a calendar that details the day and time which volunteer is to do which task. Privacy protections are built in.

The Westchester County DSPS details how all this works in the 100-page, "Care Circles of Westchester" guide. It provides step-by-step instructions about how to start, operate and maintain a care circle. It also offers practical, general information for Care Circle Members such as how to handle emergencies. It also provides a list of adult day service programs and other resources. These guidelines are also flexible to ensure that Care Circles can be replicated in other locations. Visit Westchester County's Care Circles(External Link) program on the web and learn more.

Care Circles benefit more than older adults. They benefit taxpayers because it costs less for an older adult to continue to live in his or her home rather than be forced to relocate to receive health care.

Family caregivers benefit as well. While care circles are crucial for older adults who live alone, they are also urgently needed to help an older adult who lives with his or her caregiver. For example, a caregiver may be older themselves and have some limitations that care circles can assist with, or a daughter or son who may be working, may be raising a family and can use some additional support, etc.

Caregiving is a 24 hour/seven day a week commitment, but care circle volunteers can offer the caregiver brief respites to go to a movie, get a haircut or simply relax. The stresses of caregiving are overwhelming and caregivers often feel burned out and exhausted. Care circles can play an important role in helping to reduce burnout, reduce emotional fatigue and even reduce depression and anxiety of caregivers related to caregiver stress. .

"I am confident that care circles offer one way to help these caregivers," Carpenter said. "A care circle is an idea whose time has come."

For more information about Care Circles of Westchester contact Colette Phipps, LMSW, a research analyst with Westchester County's Department of Senior Programs and Services at cap2@westchestergov.com or (914) 813-6441.