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Grants boost programs giving family caregivers some relief

“The Club’’ coordinator Grace Nunziato (left) and activities assistant Kathy Powers lead a recent sing-along session at the Center at Medfield.

John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

“The Club’’ coordinator Grace Nunziato (left) and activities assistant Kathy Powers lead a recent sing-along session at the Center at Medfield.

It’s 10:30 a.m. on a Tuesday, and seven seniors gathered in a small room at the Center at Medfield are singing “Peg o’ My Heart.”

Every Tuesday and Thursday, older adults with medical issues that require close attention by loved ones gather in the room to sing songs, play trivia, paint, and exercise. It gives them time to socialize, and it gives their caregivers a break from the pressure of their responsibilities.

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The respite-care offering in Medfield, called “the Club,’’ and a similar home-based program in Franklin are being funded with the help of grants from the MetroWest Health Foundation.

Taking care of an elderly parent can be a full-time job. People who live with the person they care for spend an average of about 40 hours per week looking after them, according to the National Center on Caregiving.

“It’s just enormously stressful,” said Karen Alves, director of Franklin’s Council on Aging. “You are responsible for so many aspects of another person’s life. It’s much like parenting, only more frustrating sometimes. Your loved one can have so many deficits.”

It’s easy for caregivers to forget they also need to take care of themselves, according to Roberta Lynch, who oversees programs at the Center at Medfield as the town’s Council on Aging director.

“Caregiving can be all-consuming. It can be rewarding, but there can be a lot of guilt, because they feel they aren’t doing enough,” Lynch said of adult children and other family members who take responsibility for aging relatives. “They are so involved with caring for the person they aren’t caring for themselves.”

Franklin launched a visiting respite-care program last year, and Medfield started the program at its senior center in 2012. Franklin’s program also serves Bellingham, and Medfield accepts residents from surrounding communities.

While the programs aim to ease the burden of caregivers, they also look to stimulate those receiving care.

“We do a lot of reminiscing, generating memories from their young lives,” said Grace Nunziato, one of the two coordinators for the program in Medfield.

Noreen Monaghan, 51, has taken care of her mother for about a year, after Tess, 79, could no longer navigate the stairs at her Roslindale home, and was frequently falling, breaking bones. Monaghan works about 25 hours a week for Bank of America in addition to her caregiver duties.

“I have to work,” she said, and Medfield’s respite program makes it possible. “It gives me a little break. This way, she’s not home all day watching TV, or sleeping, or doing nothing.”

Tess’s favorite activity at the Club?

“Trivia, I like that a lot,” she said. “It’s a good exercise for the brain.”

Matthew Goldberg said his 87-year-old great-grandmother, Sara McCann, has Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. Being in respite care gives her something to look forward to, he said.

“It gives a sense of structure to her life,” he said. “During the week she understands what she has to do and when she is going. It stimulates her mind.”

In Franklin, Alves said the companions who provide in-home respite care develop strong bonds with clients and their families.

“That social connection is as important to a person’s health as physical exercise,” Alves said.

As the baby-boom generation has gotten older, and life spans have drawn longer, the need for respite care programs has come into focus nationally. Overseen by the US Department of Health and Human Services, the National Family Caregiver Support Program was founded in 2000, and receives more than $150 million in annual funding.

The state’s Executive Office of Elder Affairs distributes about $3 million in annual federal funding for family caregiver support across 25 programs, according to agency spokeswoman Martina Jackson.

“The role of the family caregiving will become more important as the baby boomers get older and live longer — not only for potentially needing care but as caregivers,” Jackson said in an e-mail. “And the preference for most elders and caregivers to remain at home as long as possible is unlikely to change.”

Even with state programs and philanthropic grants, many people are still left to pay for care privately, which can cost more than $20 per hour. The new Franklin program costs $8 to $12 an hour, and the Medfield program is $50 per day or $35 for a half day.

The Franklin program received $12,245 in funding from the Framingham-based foundation this year to help pay its two home-visit companions, who between them work 40 hours a week. The Medfield program has received about $32,000 over the last two years. It operates on Tuesdays and Thursdays, with room for about 15 participants per day.

Despite the need for care, Alves said, the Franklin program has openings in its schedule and hopes it will become popular enough to sustain.

“It’s a pilot program at this point,” she said. “We know there are people out there who need help, we just need to reach them.”

Jarret Bencks can be reached at jbbencks@ gmail.com.
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