A Lifeline for Spanish-Speaking Caregivers, Who Often Have Nowhere to Turn

Lisa Nagy (left) and Connie De La Rosa sit at a table inside the Family Caregiver Resource Center in Santa Paula. Nagy runs the Older Adult Services and Intervention System, a county-wide program that includes the new bilingual resource center. De La Rosa is in charge of the new center. Photo by Claudia Boyd-Barrett

The Family Caregiver Resource Center in Santa Paula isn’t much to look at.

Located in a dusty strip mall along the main road of this small Ventura County town, the 500-square-foot office houses a few computers and some brochures and books on caregiving. Inside sits just one full-time worker and a part-time assistant.

Yet for dozens of local Spanish speakers caring for elderly and disabled relatives, this tiny center is a lifeline.

Since opening its doors just over a year ago, the Family Caregiver Resource Center has helped ease the burden of almost 200 family caregivers, providing them with free medical equipment, home modifications and respite care, and connecting them to Spanish-language support groups, trainings and social services. Staff members even organize monthly medical checkups for caregivers at the center; give out free adult diapers and nutritional drinks; and direct people who need help with immigration issues, setting up a will or just accessing food.

Run by Catholic Charities Ventura County and supported by an $80,000 federal grant channeled through the local Area Agency on Aging, the resource center is unique to Ventura County and possibly the state. While providing caregiver support is not a new concept, the Family Caregiver Resource Center’s exclusive focus on assisting the Spanish-speaking caregiver population makes it standout, said Program Manager Lisa Nagy.

The center primarily services the agricultural Santa Clara River Valley region, which includes the majority-Latino cities of Santa Paula, Piru and Fillmore. For caregivers in this low-income region, the typical challenges of caring for a family member are exacerbated by additional stressors such as poverty, concerns about immigration status, lack of English language skills, and inability to access low-income health coverage and other social services because they or their relatives are undocumented.

“You’re working with a population that’s not used to receiving services, doesn’t know where to look for services (or is) scared about immigration,” Nagy said. “Also a lot of caregivers, we are finding, do not know they are caregivers. It’s just what they do, in their culture, is take care of their families.”

Overcoming Initial Mistrust

The need for Spanish-language support for caregivers in Ventura County is extensive. More than 1 in 10 county residents do not speak English well, according to the U.S. Census bureau. Latinos also suffer from a higher incidence of Alzheimer’s and related disorders than Caucasians, yet they are significantly underrepresented in services, said Marleen Canniff, grants administrator at the Ventura County Area Agency on Aging.

Despite this need, the Family Caregiver Resource Center initially struggled to find clients to help, said Connie De La Rosa, who runs the Santa Paula office and was in charge of getting the program started.

Community members were mistrustful of the office at first—unsure whether the services being offered were legitimate and wary of providing personal information they feared might be turned over to immigration authorities, De La Rosa said. Cultural concerns also got in the way. Some people felt embarrassed asking for outside help for what they saw as a family responsibility.

In addition, many people were so busy juggling caregiving with paid work and getting by that they didn’t have time to contact the center for help, even though they desperately needed it, De La Rosa said.

So, she set out into the community herself. For the past year, De La Rosa—a Spanish speaker—has been building connections with people and organizations in the area, showing up at local functions, medical clinics, churches, senior centers, food banks and other places frequented by seniors and their caregivers to let them know about the services the Family Caregiver Resource Center offers.

Sometimes she even goes directly to the caregivers themselves. She recounted a case where one woman was exhausted from caring for a husband with Alzheimer’s, yet too busy to seek help. De La Rosa heard about her through a neighbor and turned up at her house with an intake form so the woman could sign up for respite help. The caregiver was so surprised and relieved she started crying, De La Rosa said.

“I try to establish that relationship with people,” she said. “A lot of people out here don’t trust somebody on the phone. They need to see you.

“Now it’s finally paying off.”

‘I’m not the only one’

As of July, the center had a waiting list for services, all of which are offered at no cost. About 28 people on the waiting list are seeking respite care, medical supplies or assisted devices. De La Rosa said that shows her outreach efforts are working. She expects the number of clients will continue to grow.

Rita Avila and her husband, Rojelio Avila. Rita has been a caregiver for her husband for the past 20 years and recently joined a Spanish-language support group run by the Family Caregiver Resource Center. Photo by Claudia Boyd-Barrett

Rita Avila, 78, of Fillmore, is one client who has benefited from the resource center. For the past 20 years, the Spanish speaker has been caring for her husband, 86-year-old Rojelio Avila, who’s been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and suffered three strokes. A few months ago, his condition deteriorated to the point where the doctor told Rita Avila her husband could not be left alone. That left her stuck in the house, unable to visit friends or take time for herself as she was used to. Her daughters helped occasionally but were busy working and looking after their own families. Rita Avila said she felt lonely, frustrated and isolated.

Luckily, she found out about a monthly caregiver support group organized by the Family Caregiver Resource Center and offered at her local senior center in Fillmore. Through attending the group, Rita Avila said she has learned coping strategies and met other Latina women in the same boat. She said she’s started recommending the group to other Spanish speakers she knows.

“It feels good because you stop and think, I’m not the only one,” she said. “There are a lot of people out there who are going through the same.”

Canniff, with the Ventura County Area Agency on Aging, confirmed that the Family Caregiver Resource Center is the only program in Ventura County solely serving the Spanish-speaking caregiver population. Christin Hemann, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Aging, said the state doesn’t track these kinds of programs. However, Derrell Kelch, executive director of the California Association of Area Agencies on Aging, said the program is likely the only one in the state.

Nagy and De La Rosa, who both spoke passionately about the program, said they would like to expand it further, opening a bigger office, perhaps even with an adult day-care center attached. Those big dreams would require more funding, they acknowledged. In the meantime, they said they’ll continue to help caregivers as much as they can with the resources they have.

“We’re used to working in tiny spaces,” Nagy said. “But we have big hearts and we give a lot.”

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