TWIN FALLS • Until about six years ago, Jerome couple Ralph Taylor and Joan Fafford-Taylor had a close, loving relationship.

That was before Fafford-Taylor began hitting Ralph with her cane. Or kicking him. Or trying to stab him with knives. Or threatening to kill him.

“I’ve had to hide the knives and guns,” Taylor said Monday after a meeting of Magic Valley caregivers. “Her violent behavior is starting to escalate now, so I have to get her down to be evaluated.”

Taylor thinks his partner of 33 years has Alzheimer’s-related dementia, but he’s not sure. The mental decline began about six years ago and has gradually worsened. Taylor is one of many Magic Valley individuals caring for loved ones or others whose stress-filled roles threaten to overwhelm them mentally and physically.

The 62-year-old joined about 20 other area caregivers in Twin Falls on Monday at the South Central Public Health District to learn about the rights of residents in certified family homes. The monthly caregiver support meetings, sponsored by the College of Southern Idaho’s Area IV Office on Aging, cover a variety of topics including access to available resources, decision and problem solving, respite and supplemental services and caregiver training.

The services can be invaluable, because caring for others is a never-ending job, said Shawna Wasko, Office on Aging public information and contracts manager. The classes also help overwhelmed caregivers feel less alone and better understood.

“Unless you are actually doing it (caregiving), people have no idea what 24/7, seven days a week, 365 days a year means,” Wasko said.

Hansen mom Sharon Dedman is actually doing it, and she and her husband, Rockie, know exactly what all those numbers mean. The couple has been caring for their biological son Clay — who has Down syndrome — for the past 37 years. But Dedman, who attended the latest caregiver’s meeting, insists Clay’s challenges are not her own, even though he relies on her for such daily tasks as clipping toenails and fingernails and helping brush his teeth.

“I don’t think of caring for Clay as a challenge,” she said. “He’s a big blessing in my life, and he makes me happy. He’s just a big kid, even though he’s 37, and he’s so easy to love.”

It used to be that easy for Taylor, too; it’s the pain of those memories that now haunt him.

“It’s hard to see someone going through that,” he said. “It’s particularly hard mentally and emotionally, because they are not the same person they were 10 years ago.”

Taylor’s in a vulnerable position, Wasko said, because people with Alzheimer’s disease can be particularly challenging for caregivers. And there’s this: “We have many statistics that indicate caregivers are more likely to die than the ones they care for,” she added.

Moreover, because Taylor is not his mate’s legal guardian, he can’t force her to do anything — eating, seeing a doctor or bathing, for instance — for fear he’d be charged with elder abuse.

And that was one of the issues participants discussed in the latest caregivers meeting.

“The people we take care of have the same rights as we have, even when their abilities to make decisions are limited,” Office on Aging ombudsman manager Amanda Scott told her audience. “So we must let them make the decisions they can.”

Caregivers meeting participant Anita Haight can relate to the sentiment.

In her Twin Falls certified family home she has run since 2000, Haight currently cares for one female resident in her 50s, though she has had several others over the years. She cooks meals, plans social activities and offers personal care. The caregiver/resident relationship can be close, she said.

“They really become part of your family,” she said.

She recalled another of her residents, now deceased, who stayed with her for seven years. The 67-year-old man particularly impressed her three daughters, she said.

“They said he was like the brother they didn’t have,” Haight said.

And though relationships between caregivers and cared for can be harmonious, the threat of burnout always lurks, especially for those living with loved ones, Wasko warned.

“It’s insidious, and it happens slowly,” she said. “We want to take care of family members, but we also want to be realistic about that heavy burden.”

The burden is even heavier when one family member is expected to carry the load.

“I just see too many caregivers who have brothers and sisters who show up, but really offer no help and then go away,” she said. “Or they offer unsolicited advice on how their sibling should be taking care of a family member.”

Some are just too scared to help.

“Sometimes the brothers and sisters tell me they’re afraid because they don’t know how to change Dad’s diaper or give him his shot or manage his meds,” Wasko said. “So they come up with a lot of excuses why they can’t help.”

Despite the best intentions, however, some situations eventually become untenable. And that’s when assisted-living facilities or nursing homes come into play. That’s also when caregivers must ask hard questions.

Explained Wasko: “At some point you have to ask: Do I want to be a spouse or a caregiver? Do I want to be a daughter or a caregiver?”

The tipping point, Wasko added, is when individuals can no longer care for themselves, when activities such as driving, cooking, dressing and bathing become too much. That, added to personality clashes that may surface as situations become more desperate, spell the end for effective in-home care by relatives.

“It just builds and builds,” Wasko said. “When the caregiver is done and burned out, everybody’s done.”

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