Aiding the aging

After spending years caring for her aging loved ones, former nurse Sharon Ford created a program to help others caring for the elderly

Sunday, December 3, 2006 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 3:39 a.m. CDT, Sunday, July 20, 2008

Granny always wanted work to do. She loved to fold clothes like some people love to rock climb or eat sushi. Every day she had one load in the washer and one in the dryer.

The number of times Granny unknowingly folded and rewashed clean clothes would make you laugh.

Each morning Granny would ask if there was more. “Yes, Granny, unfortunately there is more laundry,” Sharon Ford would say.

At her 92nd birthday party, Granny told friends and family about that week she stayed with her granddaughter Sharon. “That woman had so much laundry,” she said. “I honestly don’t know what she would have done without me.”

Sharon Ford’s grandmother never felt like a burden. She was convinced that those 10 days were the busiest of Ford’s life. Granny felt needed.

Situations like Ford’s are not uncommon. In Boone County, roughly 16 percent of households lodge families with one or more elderly members, age 65 or older. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, about 1 in 4 households accommodate Missouri seniors in this age range.

Developing an understanding of needs and having the ability to meet them is critical both for caregivers and their loved ones. Many times, that understanding is developed through the trial and error of personal experience.

Ford, Boone Hospital Center’s standards coordinator, spent years helping care for her aging loved ones. She experienced the joys and pain of caregiving first-hand and obtained loads of information along the way. Ford began studying the needs of the elderly in college. And as a result of her MU capstone project in 2001 and her desire to help others, she developed the idea for a series of classes on caregiving. She wanted to provide in-home health care education and support to Columbia families who are often struggling with the thought of caregiving.

A nudge from Nancy Drew

When she was young, Ford would get in trouble for having her nose in a book while she was supposed to be doing something else. Funny thing is, she’s still that way. “I can go anywhere, do anything or be anything through my books,” Ford said. And for Ford, pursuing nursing closely resembled the kind of experience she had when reading. “Sometimes caring for a patient is like being on a big detective story. You’re trying to track down evidence and find a solution that will help someone. All of that intrigued me.”

Ford’s had a passion for helping people since she was a child, continually seeking opportunities to make others’ lives easier. As a teenager, Ford worked at a local hospital where she observed nurses on a daily basis. The environment was comforting to her. She loved its smells. “At that point, I just knew that’s what I wanted to do,” Ford said.

At one point, Ford considered becoming a missionary nurse. But whether in Africa or Columbia, she has always seen nursing as a calling. “It’s more than a job — it’s my life,” she said.

Delilah Jones, one of Ford’s college nursing instructors, told nurses that their purpose was to make a difference using their God-given gifts. “I’m sure some people blew that off, but I really took it to heart,” Ford said.

As a nurse, Ford has always paid attention to detail: She’d move the remote closer to the bedside; she’d adjust the pillows; she’d tell stories – anything to make her patients just a bit more comfortable. And she has always hated that there was too little time to accomplish everything. But she had a knack for recognizing the little things that made a difference. “Something in me just wanted to get in there and fix all of it!” she said.

Ford spent 36 years in nursing. Today people tell her she is no longer a nurse, though she begs to differ. “Now, I just use my talents and abilities in a different way,” Ford said. “My focus has changed from impacting the lives of the four or five patients I’m assigned to each day to impacting the care of every patient, even those in in-home care situations.”

A cry for help

You’ve been on the phone all day. You’re tired. You’re agitated. You ask your question for the 17th time today and hear: “I’m sorry, we don’t have resources for in-home care. Have you tried calling the hospital?”

Ford became accustomed to frequent phone calls from her mother. “I don’t know what to do,” her mom would say.

“That’s what Mom always said when she needed me to come,” Ford said.

Ford’s personal caregiving experience was exasperating. When her family needed help, there was no one to provide it. They didn’t know where to go or what questions to ask. The tools just didn’t exist. “People just aren’t prepared for it,” Ford said.

Caregiving is a somewhat new phenomenon in part because people are living longer and many potential caregivers don’t know how to cope. “But you shouldn’t have to spend all the hours that you’re not at work trying to figure out where to go for help,” Ford said.


Sharon Ford’s diploma sits beside a statue her husband, Kent Ford, gave her upon graduation from MU’s nursing program in 2001. (Photos by LYLE WHITWORTH/Missourian)

Ford wanted to help. So she developed the caregivers program five years ago and had no idea how many lives would be affected. In 2003, Boone Hospital Center in partnership with Central Missouri Area Agency on Aging started the Caregivers Support Program. The Monday evening classes inform attendants about what to do in times of uncertainty. They also provide counseling, resources and information about other beneficial programs available at Boone and around Columbia.

Dorreen Rardin, director of palliative care at Boone, said she saw a need, and Sharon Ford was the perfect person to address it. “She’s really taken off from where she started years ago,” Rardin said.

Rardin once sat on the Caregivers Support Planning Committee, which now consists of seven other Boone employees. The committee works with Ford to plan classes and recruit speakers, most of whom are volunteers. Several are hospital employees. “The people here are so talented, caring and giving,” Ford said. “And I know I can always count on them.”

Following each class, caregivers complete session evaluations to identify future topics. “They’re the ones caregiving; they should have a say,” Ford said.

Leaning on one another

Sue McVey, 60, has been attending caregiver classes for three years. She’s been caring for her mother-in-law, “Mema,” since 1993. “At the beginning, it was mostly doing her grocery shopping, doing her taxes and balancing her checkbook, but now it’s full-time care,” McVey said. She, like many caregivers, finds comfort in knowing she’s not alone.

“It’s wonderful to go and see that there are other people in the community in situations similar to mine,” she said. “Sometimes it’s so easy to think, ‘I’m the only one.’”

Success stories are frequent. Whether it’s learning about the benefits of a commode splash guard or how the floor plan of your house could add a new level of stress, caregivers walk away from each class with a bit more confidence than they came with. “I think people find comfort in the fact that they are able to relate to my own experience and those of other caregivers who come,” Ford said.

Learning to conquer

Ford’s father was an intelligent man. He earned several degrees throughout his lifetime. And some of Ford’s happiest childhood memories were with him at Girl Scout father-daughter dinners. She had looked forward to every “date night” with Daddy.

The day Ford took her aging father home from the rehab facility where he was recovering from a stroke after open-heart surgery, she was proud of him for dressing himself, getting into the car and moving into the house with little difficulty. She had only one suggestion: that he put on his Depends. “I don’t need them anymore,” her father insisted. Shortly after he sat down in the recliner to relax after dinner, Ford noticed him struggling to stand up. He needed to use the bathroom, he said. Immediately. She took his arm and began to walk with him.

He didn’t make it.

“I had to strip my dad and wash him,” Ford said. “It was very difficult for both of us. Dad was so embarrassed.”

How was this the man whose feet she had danced on years ago? This was not her father.

Despite her discomfort, Ford used the situation to help her father understand how to make things easier on her mother. Simple things like eating meals at the kitchen table rather than insisting he be served in his recliner could make a big difference. Ford, too, learned a valuable lesson she continues to share with the caregivers: never leave without an extra set of clothes.


Ford, as Boone Hospital’s standards coordinator, has witnessed first-hand the difficulties of caring for the elderly. As part of her capstone project at MU, she came up with the idea to develop classes on the subject of caregiving.

Taking care of Mom

Some family members are better suited to offer hands-on help than others because of proximity, for example, while others are better suited for childcare, running errands or simply listening.

This was the case for Ford’s family, too, in caring for their mother. Her siblings helped their mother equally in only one area: They reminded her to get her monthly checkup.

Each winter, they made sure Mom got her flu shot. And her medications weren’t going to refill themselves. “My siblings and I knew if our mom became ill, everything would change,” Ford said. “Our best defense was our offense.” She said the game plan was to take care of their mother so she could take care of their father.

Ford had to balance the responsibility of supporting her mother — who lived two hours away — with her commitments in Columbia as wife, mother, student and full-time employee. At the same time, her father’s lack of cooperation was the icing on the cake. “It’s one thing to take care of someone who’s loving and appreciative,” Ford said. “It’s another thing when they’re yelling and demanding things all the time.”

For most people, one of two motivations drive the decision to provide care for a family member: love or duty. A caregiving situation with a poor parent-child relationship can be twice as draining as one where that relationship is healthy. Ford said though people who give care out of love are also stressed, it is likely because they are refusing other help, not because of an emotional burden.

“No matter what someone’s personal circumstance is, I think there is something in all caregivers that makes them want to do the right thing,” Ford said. “Sometimes that means letting someone else besides you give the care.”

Full-time caregiving is not for everyone, Ford said, but if you make the commitment, there are ways to lighten the load.

“Being a caregiver can be an exhausting, stressful experience no matter how much you love or want to help the person needing the care,” Ford said. “The guidance of those who have walked a mile or two down the road ahead of you is invaluable.”

Finding support

Nobody can do it all. The hardest part is admitting you need help, Ford says. Many caregiver situations are long-term: three, five, even 10-plus years. Many caregivers don’t realize that it’s not possible to provide care for that long without it taking a physical toll on the caregiver. “This is something caregivers really need to understand,” Ford said. They must have some form of social life or support system, and they need to take care of themselves.

In the midst of all its emotional ups and downs, the caregiving experience can do wonders for the soul. Ford said she remembers her mother and grandmother giggling like schoolgirls over incidents like trying to get Granny into the shower. And she will forever cherish her grandmother’s stories about family history. “We had so many laughs,” Ford said. “So many of those stories may have never come up if we had not had so much time together.”

Through the caregivers program, people are reminded that providing care to a family member or friend does not have to provoke a sorrowful attitude. “It’s a journey that can be enjoyable and fulfilling if you just learn how to maneuver the obstacles that you are sure to encounter along the way,” Ford said.

Ford said she has lived a fulfilling life with few regrets. “When I was a nurse, my purpose for doing all the things I did was to help make someone’s life easier, and I enjoyed the feeling I got from that.” Today that feeling has not gone away. “I just cannot imagine someone doing a job day after day that they don’t enjoy.”

The National Gerontological Nursing Association invited Ford to present her caregiver work at its annual meeting in Cincinnati in October, and now she waits to see what’s around the next corner.

“When I retire, I’ll probably be back here volunteering,” she said. Private-duty nursing is also a possibility, she said, which may involve helping people at her church or volunteering for Hospice Respite. She said the most rewarding part is watching people overcome feelings of helplessness and seeing new confidence in the faces of the caregivers.

“It’s having people say ‘thank you so much for doing this; I think I’m going to make it now.’”

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