They share a common journey — that of caregiver for a friend or family member, a commitment that can be equal parts rewarding and frustrating.
It’s 11:30 a.m. on a Tuesday morning, and women are filtering into First African Methodist Episcopal Church of Los Angeles’ Allen House. They sit around a large, wooden table and exchange greetings, catching up on family matters and recent news. For many, this is precious time, as it’s among the only moments they get to themselves.
At the head of the table sits Bobbe Akalonu, 83, facilitator and founder of this twice-monthly Family Caregiver Support Group that works in collaboration with the USC Family Caregiver Support Center.
“They come through that door and say, ‘I can exhale,’” Akalonu said.
Up to the challenge of caregiving
Akalonu is well versed in the challenges of caregiving. After her father and husband passed away, she moved in with her mother, who suffered from dementia following a vascular stroke. Ill prepared for the role, relief came during a trip to a senior center where she noticed literature about the USC Family Caregiver Support Center. The center provides services such as support groups, education, training, consultations and long-term planning to caregivers of anyone with brain-impairing or long-term health conditions.
“Our focus is on the family caregiver,” said Donna Benton, research associate professor at the USC Leonard Davis School of Gerontology and director of the support center. “We help them understand how to manage their time and stress levels so they can be there in the long run to care for their relatives or friends.”
Akalonu took advantage of anything she thought would help — from seminars to workshops and support groups. “It was 100 percent of my education on caregiving and changed my perspective on responsibility,” she said.
Sharing that caregiver’s knowledge
In 2002, Akalonu’s mother passed away, but instead of walking away from the world of caregiving, she decided to share her vast knowledge with others.
“I knew there was a need in our community,” she said.
Together with Benton, Akalonu drafted a proposal for a caregiver support group in conjunction with USC’s support center to take place at First AME Church of Los Angeles, the city’s oldest African American-founded church. They presented the proposal to Senior Minister J. Edgar Boyd, and it was met with his full support.
“We are indebted to Sister Bobbe and her work, her dedication and her consistent commitment for what she has been doing out of her heart for a long time, and I think if you listen to her long enough, you will become as dedicated as she is,” Boyd said.
“We needed a trusted gatekeeper for the First AME community, and that was Bobbe,” added Benton, who advised the church’s steering committee on how to discuss caregiving issues, how to identify caregivers within the church and how to refer them back to the support center for additional resources and expertise.
How to balance caregiving with personal needs
In January 2015, the Family Caregiver Support Group at the Allen House held its first gathering. Over the past three years, it has assisted about 75 families. It helps participants find support, learn from common experiences and discuss solutions to problems.
“One of the biggest challenges of being a caregiver is balancing personal needs with full-time responsibilities,” Benton said. “Many are working caregivers. We find that 40 to 50 percent of family caregivers exhibit symptoms of major depression.”
Group member Erliene L. Kelley cared for her mother, who had dementia, and said it was a full-time job.
“I took her to all of her appointments — doctor, dental, foot doctor, everything,” she said. “I neglected myself by not going to my mammogram appointments and ended up with breast cancer.”
Though her mother died last year, Kelley still attends the meetings.
“It’s a group of people I love being with,” she said. “If I’m able to help them, I will.”
Nannette Gueye took care of her mother and is now caring for a 99-year-old veteran. She said the meetings provide a wealth of information, whether through printed material or conversation.
“Sometimes it’s just a blessing to share my experience and hear someone else’s testimony,” she said.
In addition to helping the community, the support group often assists caregiving researchers.
“Many times when we are developing new programs, we will invite the members to participate in focus groups for researchers at USC,” Benton said. “They’re asked about caregiving and stress, legal issues or nutrition.”
Over 90 minutes, members of the Family Caregiver Support Group shared, vented, commiserated and even shed a few tears. That is their safe space where they can always find love and support.
As the meeting came to a close and the women gathered their belongings and said their goodbyes, you could hear one of them utter a single phrase: “This group is priceless.”
The Family Caregiver Support Group meets every second and fourth Tuesday of the month from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. at First AME Church of Los Angeles’ Allen House. Attendance is free and open to everyone at 2249 S. Harvard Blvd. For more information, contact the USC Family Caregiver Support Center at 855-872-6060.