Spanish-speaking caregivers find help through groups

Jose Rodriguez often gets up at 2 a.m.

Sometimes, it's because of his wife. She has Alzheimer's disease and requires a lot of his attention.

Other times, he wakes up to the phone ringing.

That's because Rodriguez serves as a shoulder to cry on, a listening ear and wise words of advice for caregivers all over Florida - caregivers who seek him out because he speaks their language.

Based out of Miami, he's partnered with the University of Florida's AlzOnline.net to provide no-cost telephone support groups for Spanish speakers all over the state who care for family members and loved ones living with Alzheimer's disease or progressive dementia.

"I'm a very, very light sleeper," he said, laughing.

Most of the time, however, Rodriguez talks with caregivers like himself during daylight hours, when his wife goes to adult day care for the afternoon.

In his weekly teleconferences, approximately 10 Floridians call a number and type in a password that connects them with each other to discuss their lives as caregivers on a weekly basis.

"We just share our worries, we talk about our problems. We just connect," Rodriguez said.

AlzOnline.net works to provide caregivers, especially those whose primary language is Spanish, a way to find help and instruction through Internet chat rooms, telephone support and education.

Rodriguez said AlzOnline.net gave him a resource to find helpful hints about caring for a loved one with Alzheimer's or dementia. For example, he remembers struggling to give his wife, whom he has cared for since 1999, a bath. She frequently got soap on her face, causing her eyes to sting and making the rest of her bath very difficult. Through his AlzOnline.net support group, Rodriguez learned that using baby shampoo keeps her eyes from getting irritated.

"Each Alzheimer's patient is a like a fingerprint because they are all different," he said. "But some stuff? It's the same. Like how to wash a person. Those little tricks nobody taught you? You can get those from talking to other people who have lived it."

Resources for Spanish-speaking caregivers are a must, according to the Alzheimer's Association, as by 2050, the association predicts there will be 1.3 million elderly Hispanic patients living with the disease. In addition, a 2004 study by the Alzheimer's Association confirmed that Hispanics care for family members with Alzheimer's and dementia for longer periods of time and at higher levels of impairment, placing a much larger burden on the caregiver themselves.

AlzOnline.net tackles the problem by providing no-cost bilingual therapists, social workers and the insight of experienced caregivers, like Rodriguez, to help those who may be restricted by language and family responsibilities.

"Faced with the reality of caring for someone with a memory problem, a family's life changes forever," said Jeffrey Loomis, coordinator of AlzOnline.net and associate director of the Center for Telehealth at the UF College of Public Health and Health Professions. "We want to provide information, education and support to primary caregivers, whether they speak Spanish or English. We don't want language to be a barrier to finding the resources needed to be successful in caring for someone with a memory problem."

Talking to other Spanish-speaking caregivers can also be very comforting, Rodriguez said. Most Hispanic caregivers are taking care of immediate family members. They are intense caregivers, Rodriguez said, because of the importance the Hispanic culture places on staying close to family. Rodriguez, who was born and raised in Cuba, said he recognizes this in himself.

"We don't like to let go of our family members," he said. "Once we're together, we're together. We're attached."

The support group also helps its members break away from traditional gender roles. Men, for example, often receive cooking advice, Rodriguez said.

"When my wife became diagnosed with Alzheimer's, I had to start doing the cooking," he said. "I didn't know what I was doing. My first time in the kitchen, oh, it was a big problem. And the laundry, the washing machine. It was so confusing. I didn't know which buttons to push or how to even to buy detergent."

In turn, women get help figuring out the finances. Many of them have never balanced a checkbook, he said.

Sometimes, the group speaks with Spanish-speaking therapists or doctors who give them useful information. And sometimes, they just encourage each other to go to the gym, buy healthy groceries and "live happier," so they can be around long enough to take care of their family members, Rodriguez said.

For more information, please visit www.AlzOnline.net or call toll-free 866-260-2466.