As New Jersey’s population continues to gray, it brings along an increasing amount of challenges for senior citizens and their loved ones.

Over the last decade, the Garden State’s median age has increased almost a year to 39.6 years and Bergen County – the state’s most populous area – has one of the highest rates of aging, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Across the country, Baby Boomers are continuing to age and are slowly outnumbering children as the birth rate has declined steadily, and by 2035 Census officials estimate that senior citizen population will be the biggest in the U.S.

Those demographic changes will have major implications, such as the greater need for medical care and facilities for those 65 and older to the funding of federal Social Security and Medicare programs.

It also means more families will be tackling questions related to the care of elderly relatives, a conversation that Margo Tucker, an Englewood-based care manager, said is rarely easy.

“The needs of our elderly population are intense and getting more complex every minute,” she said.  “And, it can be hard for children to see how aging changes a parent and what to do when it comes to caring for an elderly parent.”

Aging comfortably and safely can be challenging due to a number of factors, such as increasing disability, financial resources and a lack of social support.  

Some seniors may also refuse a higher level of care – even when they need it – or refuse to downsize from their long-term home to a smaller apartment.  

What should a child do when their aging parent isn’t having trouble taking care of themselves? How should a child raise the issue of whether or not it’s safe for a parent to be driving anymore? Or, what if a parent starts showing signs of dementia?

Tucker, a licensed social worker who has been in care management for 19 years, said, “My goal is to bring any and all family together to be the voice of their loved one and to give families the tools they need to handle situations, and to have practical, emotional and realistic conversations about what’s happening.

“I want people to know this journey cannot be done alone. But, when you do it with others and a network, all the pieces come together and that’s how we age well. To age well, we need a village,” she said.

And that’s where geriatric care management comes in, Tucker said.

A client could be someone who can no longer live safely at home, or has limited or no family support. Or, a family could choose to work with a care manager if they are having trouble finding services or dealing with the health needs of an aging parent.

As a geriatric care manager, Tucker works to help the elderly and their families deal with anything from health and financial issues to housing matters to other emergencies.

Just a few of the many tasks a geriatric care manager takes on include: making home visits, recommending needed services, coming up with short- and long-term plans, selecting care personnel, evaluating in-home care needs and coordinating medical services.

“We can’t change the destination, but with the right support, we can change the journey by seeing who they were, who they are now and who they want to be by listening, understanding, loving and caring for them,” Tucker said.

Tucker, who was adopted, was drawn to social work in college, when she completed her first internship at the Miami Jewish Home & Hospital for the Aged, an assisted living center in Florida.

“That’s where I found myself,” she said. “I didn’t want people who were abandoned and left alone to feel pain.”

For the last decade, wife and mother has run her own private practice, Tucker Life Associates, and recently decided to expand and rebrand her business as Tucker Senior Life Care due to increasing demand for services.

With assistance from two care managers, the agency aims to serve seniors, as well as those with special needs, in a way that is professional, respectful and compassionate and helps them flourish and thrive, Tucker said.

Tucker said she and her colleagues specialize in chronic illness and mental health issues, such as depression and psychosis.

The majority of clients suffer from dementia, a condition that affects at least 5 million people in the U.S., according to the Alzheimer’s Association.  Every 65 seconds, someone in America develops the disease and by 2050 the number of people living with Alzheimer’s is projected to rise to nearly 14 million.

“Our expertise lies in the various types of dementias – each has its own story,” Tucker said. “More and more, we’re seeing early onset dementia. People who are 55, 62 and 68.”

Besides helping families understand the challenges of elder care, Tucker also seeks to encourage the greater community to learn more about the needs of the elderly and special needs population.

Tucker is just one of many people advocating for more comprehensive long-term care in the U.S. and buildings and neighborhoods that are more amenable to seniors and disabled individuals. There’s also a push for more programs that encourage older adults and those with special needs to participate and feel included within their communities.

Unfortunately, Tucker said, both populations are still often misunderstood or ignored by the general public, mainly due to “people’s ignorance.”

“On the positive, there’s a real push for towns to take responsibility for the elderly,” she said. Some communities have sought to become “more age-friendly” by adding more programming. Englewood, for example, “has an incredible, comprehensive volunteer-based program”

She is in the process of working on a lecture series for Englewood Hospital about dementia and has conducted smaller programs in communities around the county.

“One of the biggest changes I’ve seen is over the last few years is the complexity and challenges of the medical system,” she said. “When you or a loved one is living with a chronic illness or disease, there’s a lack of resources and many people don’t know where to turn.”

As a geriatric care manager, Tucker said it’s important to teach people “how to look at situations differently – creatively and outside of the box.”

The people Tucker is helping aren’t the only ones who learning something.

After almost two decades in social work, Tucker said she “continues to learn and grow as a person” from the bonds she forms with clients.

“I can’t tell you how many people have completely changed my life,” she said.

She recalled a 73-year-old female client who “was a very challenging person” that passed away last year. The woman, who had “serious issues with being neglected, teased and abused as a child,” became avoidant and difficult for others to be around as she grew older, Tucker said.

“No one had patience for her. She had a story, and it was fascinating and heartbreaking at the same time,” Tucker said. “She was brilliant and socially inappropriate, because she was so damaged at a young age. She was mercilessly teased for her extreme eczema, coupled with an abusive mother. Animals were her only escape and she loved them. At the zoo, she knew every exhibit and that’s where she spent all of her time until it became too difficult to go.”

“The best gift to care managers are the stories we hear. Clients share their secrets and we really try to understand all of them, and take the love and lessons to put into the best care plan,” Tucker said. “Many of our clients sit all day. One day becomes the next and you’re losing meaning and purpose.”

Tucker said that particular client “taught me that everyone deserves to be loved. We, as people, can become very judgmental of others and we can lose patience with someone who has mental health challenges. My message is that people take a minute to care.”

To find a care manager, visit the Aging Life Care Association’s website at aginglifecare.org or call (520) 881-8008. The U.S. Administration on Aging also offers an elder care locator tool on its website (https://eldercare.acl.gov/Public/Index.aspx) or by calling (800) 677-1116.

In addition to private practices, a number of non-profits offer similar services, such as Jewish Family and Child Services, Catholic Charities and the Asian Women’s Christian Association.

By Kimberly Redmond

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