Health & Fitness

Being a caregiver is difficult. Here’s how she’s trying to relieve some of the strain

Debbie Gann, right, director of Home Attendant Care, with Betty Willert, who was a recipient of in-home care services.
Debbie Gann, right, director of Home Attendant Care, with Betty Willert, who was a recipient of in-home care services. Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

Debbie Gann, director of Home Attendant Care and Home Attendant Nursing, has devoted the past 30 years to helping seniors navigate through end-of-life choices and the maze of care options available.

She strives to support those who chose to remain independent in their own homes and to ease the transition for those who can no longer do so.

She is an educator and advocate for those living with dementia and aging in the Bellingham community. She is a recognized expert in her field and works to improve the lives of those she serves.

Gann has served as president or board director for Elder Service Providers, the Alzheimer Society of Washington, the Washington Private Duty Association and the National Association for Home Care. She is also one of the founders of Excellence Northwest and recently launched a program together with Western Washington University Palliative Care Institute, Whatcom Hospice, Peace Health and other organizations entitled “A Touch of Grace.”

This program is in honor of her mother, Grace Tannenbaum, and is dedicated to improving the quality of care for those individuals in nursing homes across our region who need end-of-life care.

She also understands the burden of caregiver burnout.

Question: What is caregiver burnout?

Answer: By definition, it is a state of physical, emotional and mental exhaustion. Many express it as simply a loss of joy, loss of patience with their loved one and an overwhelming feeling of inadequacy, fatigue and hopelessness.

Q: When we talk about caregiver burnout, to whom are we referring?

A: Caregiver burnout is experienced most often by family caregivers – those family members, friends and neighbors who provide assistance to vulnerable adults in our community.

A recent AARP survey indicated that 29 percent of the U.S. adult population is family caregivers – nearly 66 billion people – and 30 percent of family caregivers are themselves over age 65. Professional or paid caregivers also can experience caregiver burnout.

Q: What causes it?

A: It is not merely the physical demands and demands on your time that create caregiver burnout. It is the emotional toll that wears on the primary caregiver and “role confusion” that they may experience. It can be difficult for a person to separate their role as a caregiver from their role as spouse, parent, lover, child, friend, etc.

Caregivers often are so busy caring for others that they neglect their own emotional, spiritual and physical health.

Q: How do you prevent it?

A: Get support. It is so important for people to understand that they cannot do this alone.

In Whatcom County we have an abundance of services available to seniors, and it is imperative to reach out to these resources and build a care team.

They say “it takes a village to raise a child,” and I believe that it takes a “community” to support a family caregiver and allow an individual to age with dignity and grace. Family caregivers need support to ensure that they can continue to provide the loving care needed.

Q: Is this a widespread issue? Are there any statistics available?

A: Sadly, statistically, more people move into a nursing home for long-term placement because of burnout or fatigue on the part of their caregiver than those who move because their condition got worse. Many caregivers indicate that frustration is their most frequently felt emotion, and well over half of all family caregivers suffer from depression.

Q: Where can caregivers turn for help?

A: There are so many resources available, but often people don’t know they exist, how to find them or who pays for them.

That is why I started teaching a course entitled Elder Care Options to help people find out how to access the support they need. I offer it through Whatcom Community College several times a year and regularly at different locations in the community.

For information on upcoming classes you can visit our website at For general information or additional guidance, individuals also can contact me directly at Home Attendant Care and Nursing, 360-734-3849.

The Alzheimer Society of Washington has information and support groups available in various locations throughout the county. They offer memory screenings and put on a fall conference each year, as well as a series of informational gatherings called “Head Talks” to help educate and support family caregivers. They can be reached online at or by phone at 360-671-3316.

The Area Agency on Aging also is a great resource and can help connect individuals to services and programs in our community, including the Family Caregiver Support Program. They can be reached through the Aging and Disability Resources at 360-738-2500.

Q: How can you help a caregiver?

A: Often just being an active listener or a shoulder to cry on can make an incredible impact. It also is quite a gift to ask them to tell you just one practical thing that you can do this week to lighten their load.

Often times, asking for help can feel like weakness for a caregiver and the phrase “how can I help” feels too vague. Offering to simply sit with their loved one for an hour or two so they can relax or get away can make a world of difference.

It is important to let family caregivers know that it is OK to ask for help and by doing so they are providing the best care possible and making sure that they will be strong and healthy enough to make it through this challenging journey with their loved ones.