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Family caregivers get help from training program in Mt. Lebanon

| Thursday, Jan. 3, 2013, 12:11 a.m.
Jasmine Goldband
Jane Settembre, 64, of Green Tree and her mother, Norma Heselbarth, 91, participated in Family Hospice & Palliative Care’s Compassionate Caregiver Training Program when caring for Jane’s father, Thomas, in the weeks prior to his death on Nov. 9, 2012. Jasmine Goldband | Tribune-Review

Jane Settembre feared a lack of knowledge would hinder her ability to care for her ailing father at home.

“It was all new to me,” said Settembre, 65, of Green Tree. She helped her mother, Norma Heselbarth, 91, tend to her father, Thomas, who had heart complications. He required round-the-clock care but did not want to be placed outside his home.

To ease their fears, the women took part in caregiver training through Family Hospice & Palliative Care, based in Mt. Lebanon, where they learned to help Thomas Heselbarth with walking, bathing and medicating.

“To know people could prepare us was really a comfort,” Settembre said.

According to the National Alliance for Caregiving, nearly one in three adults in the United States cares for a loved one who is elderly, sick or has special needs. Hospices offer help for people coping with the emotional, physical and mental challenges that can accompany that role.

Family Hospice & Palliative Care's Compassionate Caregiver Training Program includes a two-hour session designed to teach familiarity with physical care and safety for the caregiver and patient.

At one of Family Hospice's five regional locations, participants learn to administer medications; use equipment, including hospital beds, oxygen tanks, nebulizers and feeding pumps; and skills such as positioning, bathing and feeding patients. Caregivers can repeat seminars.

David Colley, who facilitates the training at Family Hospice, said it's important for trainers to listen to each family's story to fully understand the needs of a patient and develop a lesson plan for the session.

If the person is ambulatory, for example, trainers work on how to avoid falls. He teaches caregivers to draw morphine into a syringe. They talk about bathroom access, cleaning, skin care, bed positioning, mouth care and feeding.

For those who are parents, he encourages them to rely on skills they used when their child was young.

“I tell them this is not rocket science,” he said. “The more they buy into that, the more confidence they develop.”

Colley said for some people, talking about their loved one's inevitable decline is too much at first.

“Sometimes families don't want to go there,” he said. “I ask them to come back for a second session. It's a good way to ease them into it and be respectful.”

Settembre called the program “phenomenal.” As a result of a leaky heart valve, her father suffered kidney and liver complications. He needed to be turned every two hours in his bed to avoid developing sores and required morphine to assist with his breathing.

Settembre and her mother felt confident in their abilities to meet his needs. The class taught them how to use a sheet to help move him, how to avoid falls on his walker and how to change his bedding.

“They teach you all kinds of things, little tricks,” Settembre said. “It was just a really comforting experience. We were struggling and (the class) put it all into place for us.”

Thomas Heselbarth eventually was admitted to Family Hospice, where he spent five days before his death on Nov. 9. He was 89.

“He was able to die with dignity,” Settembre said.

West Penn Allegheny Health System's Forbes Hospice offers a transition-to-home program, in which patients who are leaving the hospital but require at-home care spend a few days in hospice so family members can learn care procedures.

It addresses “things families worry about, things they think only a professional can do at home,” said Maryanne Fello, hospice director. “The goal is to help families not be afraid and to help them see what's ahead. They can do the things before they go home, not just watch us.”

Knowing how to bathe, medicate and care for a person helps on an emotional level, Fello said.

“When a family member feels more competent about the physical care, it assuages their fear about the emotional part,” she said.

Kathy Tanaka, social work supervisor for North Versailles-based Three Rivers Hospice, said at first, most caregivers don't feel qualified to tend to loved ones.

“People are so afraid they may not have enough information,” she said. “We talk to them about the whole process, what's going on with the person's body, how to tell whether their loved one is having pain. We talk about changes in functioning, what to expect as far as eating.”

For some caregivers, just knowing they're not facing challenges alone is comforting, Tanaka said.

“They feel they can confide in us,” she said. “We help them understand this is a gift to them, to be able to care for a relative.”

Rachel Weaver is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7948 or

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