DOBBS FERRY, N.Y. -- Reverend Viviana DeCohen will be the be the keynote speaker at The Journey of Caregiving Conference at Dobbs Ferry High School on Thursday, Nov. 6. DeCohen, who fell into her role as a caregiver for senior citizens 20 years, now realizes it's the job that was meant for her all along.
“I was rooted and grounded in it from the very start,’’ said Viviana, a Mount Vernon resident. “I just didn’t realize it.”
Happenstance brought DeCohen into her role as a caregiver, and she has embraced it. She and her husband, Troy, even started a company, Visiting Development Care Group, LLC, which helps families find qualified companions and caregivers for short and long-term goals.
Her journey started after she was discharged from the Marine Corps in 1987 and moved back to New York in 1992. She began by assisting her surrogate grandmother, Thelma Reid, who was newly-diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. DeCohen planned to relocate to Florida after her career as a Marine. Instead, she returned to New York and cared for Thelma.
“She was well-traveled and loved children, and I spent every weekend with her when I was a young girl,’’ DeCohen said as she prepared for her speech at the Caregiving Conference. “We traveled overseas in the summer and I just loved her. When I came back to care for her, there were 26 people that called her ‘Auntie.’ But none of them were relatives. They were not really her family at all, but she never made any distinction. I thought I was the outsider, but I was never made to feel that way.”
Viviana cared for Thelma for several years before she passed, and supported her husband as he provided care for his aunt and grandmother. They are both now caring for Troy’s mother, who lives with dementia. Her husband is also the pastor at Mount Vernon Heights Congregational Church.
Viviana has learned a lot since she started caring for Thelma, and in her keynote speech at the Caregiving Conference her message will center on the importance of TIME.
“The T stands for taking time out for yourself,’’ she said. “People are so focused on the person they’re caring for, they forget to take care of themselves and neglect their own health. A caregiver can pass away from the stress of the job. It is not uncommon. They have to keep their own appointments with doctors and dentists, too.”
The other components to TIME are: I, for inviting others to participate; M, for meditation and allowing time to become calm; and E, for exercise to maximize energy.
Viviana said one of the most critical components for caregivers is to share the job with others, whether it's with family members or people that associated with the person in the past.
“Usually one main person takes on the role,’’ DeCohen said. “But they are not sure how to relinquish power. It can be harmful and stressful. Sometimes if you can call in a person who was once a part of their lives, you would be surprised how willing they are to come in and visit. It could be something like having a tea party, or looking at photos and making a little photo album.”
Viviana said she also tries to join the person mentally. “When my mother-in-law puts her pants on her head, I do the same thing,’’ she said. “I go to where her mind is at that time. It is easier to go into the moment with them than trying to tell them what they are doing is wrong. When she sees me with my pants on my head, she will say that it's silly, and something will click with her to wear her pants the proper way. Sometimes I will take a picture of us, and it takes a draining situation and turns it into laughter. You take that emotion and turn it around.”
DeCohen takes her caregiving role seriously, but she also knows she cannot do it alone all the time. It is important, she said, to step back and let other people contribute. That will be one of her primary messages at the Caregiving Conference.
“The biggest challenge is ensuring that there is a conscious effort for time management,’’ she said. “I always have to remind myself when the aid comes, or another family member comes to help, to relinquish the power. Sometimes I will even put a change of clothes in the car and not go straight home. It is still a challenge even for me to remember that I have to take care of myself, too.”
The Journey of Caregiving Conference at Dobbs Ferry High School will be held on Thursday, Nov. 6 from 4:30 p.m. to 7 p.m. There will be complimentary consultations, including free one-on-one sessions with elder law attorneys, geriatric social workers and geriatric care managers. Pamphlets, fliers and brochures about caregiver services will also be available at information tables, and there is free parking and admission to the conference. For more information, visit the website.