When my father became ill last year, every few weeks I'd make the long, stressful drive from Tampa to the Panama City nursing home in which he was staying. How I wish I'd known then about the services of the Hospice of the Florida Suncoast.
Instead, the hospice nurse from the Panhandle would call me with regular reports about my father's progress. My friends would give me love and support. But who wants to burden them?
Little did I know I could have turned to the Pinellas Hospice for emotional and moral support. It wouldn't have mattered that my father was under another hospice's care. It wouldn't have mattered if he was under no one's care.
The Hospice of the Florida Suncoast offers caregiver services and support to virtually anyone — family members of their patients, local caregivers whose loved one has no connection to hospice, and even people like me, whose hands-on caregiving role is limited by distance.
The support can come in various forms, such as one-on-one meetings with counselors, or Caregiver Coffee Breaks, held at various locations around Pinellas County. About half who attend the coffee breaks have a loved one under the care of the local hospice.
"Nobody can really provide you with better support than those who know what you're going through," says Sandi Sunter, director of community programs for the Hospice of the Florida Suncoast.
In recent years, more emphasis has been placed on caregivers, and what they need during this trying time, Sunter says. Sometimes it's emotional support. Other times it's a break from the day-to-day demands that come with the caregiver role.
Throughout the Tampa Bay area, organizations provide insight and assistance so caregivers don't have to go it alone.
"There are still a lot of people who aren't aware there's help," says Tracy Barrows, information and assistance coordinator with the senior help line at the Area Agency on Aging of Pasco-Pinellas.
The agency serves as an entry point for finding government-funded services for seniors, as well as providing information on non-profit agencies, Barrows says. That might involve finding adult day care programs, in-home respite care or information on support groups.
There are 11 agencies across the state, and each is responsible for a number of Florida counties.
Hillsborough County also has its own Department of Aging Services, which runs six adult day care centers that can help care for those with Alzheimer's disease.
Often, an adult child who is caring for a parent drops him or her at a center on the way to work, then picks them up at the end of the day, says Susan Torres, a registered nurse with the department. Or a spouse might need a bit of free time to run errands or simply to have coffee with a friend.
The patients also benefit from getting out of the house and socializing.
For those whose loved one has dementia, the Alzheimer's Association Florida Gulf Coast Chapter has a 24-hour help line, which can provide advice in a crisis, or listen because "sometimes people just need to talk and vent," says Gloria Smith, the chapter's president and chief executive officer.
The organization also will provide care consultations in its office or at a person's home to discuss services and needs. There are 130 support groups available along the Gulf Coast.
"People need to ask for help earlier so we can make their life a little bit easier," Smith says.
Freelance writer Susan Ladika lives in Tampa.