Volunteering on the Alzheimer’s Association Helpline

A typical day for volunteers staffing the Helpline at the Alzheimer’s Association is like “a pizza with everything on it,” said Kathie Smith, a Helpline volunteer since October 2011. The nature of calls can range from a person inquiring about an education class, to where the closest support group is, to requests for a list of attorneys, to advice for how to help keep someone safe from wandering.

During a recent afternoon shift Helpline counselors helped a family decide whether to cancel a family vacation because mom is unable to endure the long flight. Smith’s voice is calm and caring with the person on the phone. After she hangs up, she follows up in an email with additional information about Alzheimer’s so the family can make the best decision based on their specific needs. Like other Association volunteers, Smith embraces the challenges presented during each of her shifts on the Helpline.  She has worked in the senior care and housing industry for 18 years and uses her experience to deepen the advice she gives.

Along with Smith, Fran Billars also assists as a Helpline counselor. In her first conversation, Billars offers assistance to a health care provider in need of information regarding support groups. Before becoming a Helpline volunteer, Billars was a nurse for 40 years. The last 10 of those she spent working in home healthcare. Billars has first-hand experience being a caregiver as well. When taking care of her husband who had Alzheimer’s, she reached out to the Helpline for support.  The information she received was invaluable, and she decided to give back to the community that gave her support. “I’ve been there and know what helped me,” Billars said.

Mary Weathersby has been a Helpline volunteer since September 2011. She became involved when her mother was diagnosed with the disease so, in addition to being a volunteer, she is also a caregiver.  Weathersby used the “vast resources” the Helpline offers to gain assistance with her mother. After benefitting from the information she received, Weatherby decided volunteering for the Helpline was something she could do to offer others similar help.

After completing the comprehensive 30-35 hours of training to become an Alzheimer’s Association Helpline volunteer, she now takes the Monday afternoon volunteer shift and says she  is still “shocked at how much people can deal with and they don’t even realize it sometimes,” Weathersby said. Being a caregiver means being there for someone with dementia 24/7. Often it is a labor of love shared by a husband, a wife or an adult child who simply doesn’t think about the dedication and exhaustive commitment they make every single day to care for someone with Alzheimer’s. Sometimes caregivers don’t reach out for help until they are faced with a crisis. The Helpline is there even before that happens with information, lists of resources, a calendar of classes and the confidential support and compassionate listening offered to everyone who calls.

The Helpline is generally staffed by volunteers who have had a family member affected by the disease and who are looking for a way to give back to the organization that helped them on their own journey with Alzheimer’s. There are also volunteers who simply want to contribute to the work of a non-profit they believe makes a difference in the lives of the people they serve.

According to the Alzheimer’s Association Facts and Figures 2012, there are 5.4 million Americans living with Alzheimer’s disease, including 72,000 of those in Colorado with an expected increase to 110,000 in our state by 2025. “With the prevalence of the disease, however, there is not Ôone face’ of Alzheimer’s,” Smith said. “Each case is specific to each individual.”

“Alzheimer’s imposes profound challenges on individuals and their families. The Helpline is a resource to empower people with the tools they need and to reassure them that they are not alone,” Smith said.

The Alzheimer’s Association Helpline receives calls from all over the state during the regular work day, after hours and on holidays or weekends.  The nationwide Helpline is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, to respond to the concerns and questions of people dealing with Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia. The Helpline is available not only for family members caring for a loved one with the disease, but for individuals who are concerned about their own memory loss and for professional healthcare providers with questions about clients as well as the staff of employee assistance programs. All calls are strictly confidential and if requested, materials can be mailed under without any indentifying Alzheimer’s brand on the package.

Knowledgeable Helpline counselors can provide information about the warning signs of Alzheimer’s,  tips for keeping the environment safe and comfortable, techniques for managing difficult issues,  and they can offer referrals for legal and financial advice and lists of retirement communities, assisted living centers, Memory Care Units, in-home care agencies and hospice organizations.  Additionally, the Helpline provides confidential care consultation, crisis assistance and education on the issues families face every day. A new list of organizations that have completed Leaders in Dementia Care training is also available to callers and online at alz.org/co.

The Alzheimer’s Association 24/7 Helpline provides reliable information and support to all those who need assistance which would not be possible without the dedication of a very special team of volunteers. For support and information, call toll-free anytime day or night at 800.272.3900 or go online to alz.org/co.  To become a volunteer for the Alzheimer’s Association in one of the seven regional offices located in Colorado Springs, Denver, Durango, Ft. Collins, Grand Junction, Greeley or Pueblo call 800.272.3900.

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