Aging in Appalachia: Caregiving in Isolation
Caring for loved ones as they age can be incredibly demanding. It can also leave the caregiver feeling forsaken by society -- especially as families move away from the home base, leaving fewer people to share responsibilities.
“I have two sisters who I love dearly, but they both live in Florida, so it’s me,” said Tricia Kingery. Kingery is part of what some social scientists call the sandwich generation. She’s simultaneously responsible for caring for her daughter -- age six -- and her aging mother.
“We have some family, but over time family shrinks and people move away and really I’m the only one my mom can count on, so there’s a lot on my shoulders.”
Kingery is an educated small-business owner and the epitome of an energetic go-getter. But after her father died and the responsibility of caring for her mother fell to her, she said she struggled to find help.
“I have found finding the services, support, resources, friendships, whatever, to be the most challenging thing I’ve ever seen,” she said. “I’m a little bit angry that our society and our culture does not take care of our senior citizens. It baffles me -- they’re so vulnerable and they’re so lonely.”
Not only is Kingery in the sandwich generation...trying to balance work, marriage, motherhood and caring for her own mother, but her mom, a retired English teacher who was married to a retired principal, is middle income. Which means that she makes too much to qualify for a lot of the state services, yet also doesn’t bring in enough each month to afford private care. Kingery said there are a handful of programs in the state that offer sliding fee rates for their services.
“But still that’s an hourly rate, and if you multiply that by 24 hours or 8 hours or even 4 hours, there goes her whole money,” she said.
Jenni Sutherland, executive director of Putnam County aging, said Kingery’s situation is not an anomaly.
“I find that the people who really struggle the most are those who are just over the income asset guideline for Medicaid and have worked hard their whole lives and have saved -- and then they’re not eligible, because they have a couple thousand extra dollars in the bank or whatever,” said Sutherland.
Part of the problem, Sutherland said, is that people -- especially in the more urban areas -- aren’t staying in their home communities the way used to.
“If you get out into some of those really rural areas, you’ve got five generations of a family maybe living in the same holler, and they’re all right there and they can provide support and help to each other. But you get into Kanawha County and Cabell County -- some of the more urban areas -- and a lot of those kids have moved on and they [the elderly] don’t have the family support.”
Faith in Action
As baby boomers age, and their children leave the state, some residents are seeking innovative solutions to make senior care more affordable.
Years ago, when Jennifer Waggener was working for the Alzheimer’s Association while caring for her own aging parents, she found there were big gaps in services available. To change that, she started Faith in Action in 2014.
Faith in Action is a volunteer-driven organization that provides transportation to doctors’ appointments, and the grocery store, plus home visits and “Honey Do” crews that provide maintenance, painting and yard work free of charge. In October of 2018, Faith in Action had more than 200 volunteers serving more than 530 seniors in Kanahwa and Putnam counties. Waggener said as West Virginia ages, she expects the need for the services like Faith in Action to grow even more.
“We have to find and exploit creative and innovative ideas that are out there in the community… There needs to be a lot more collaboration, there needs to be a lot more discussion and conversation and actual acknowledgement that this problem is coming,” she said.
A couple of months ago, Kingery was desperate for help with her mom -- even if it was just someone her mom could talk to on a daily basis other than her. After extensive research, she stumbled upon Faith in Action, took Waggener to lunch, and recently submitted an application for her mother. But Faith in Action isn’t in every county in West Virginia. Which means although the program will provide some relief to Kingery’s mother and similar families, many more families will still struggle.
Editor's Note 3/13/2019: An earlier version of this story spelled Jennifer Waggener's last name as Waggoner.
Appalachia Health News is a project of West Virginia Public Broadcasting, with support from Marshall Health and Charleston Area Medical Center.