Bernice Lennart Claassen

Elisa's mother Bernice Lennart Claassen, left, at her 90th birthday. Around this time she transitioned into living at Christian Healthcare in Lynden. She lived until three and a half years ago. (Elisa Claassen/For the Tribune)

About 11 years ago I was assisting my mother at home.  Unlike expectant parents who often purchase “What to Expect When You Are Expecting” to prepare for the birth of their first child, as an adult child of an aging family member, I just didn’t really know what to do. 

I was born to aging parents. My father died in his late 70s when I was in my mid-20s. I had stepped into being a primary caregiver with little or no training. As the years passed, my mother was heading to age 90 and I was seeing changes in her behavior. One day she accidentally set something on fire in the stove – and didn’t notice. I saw changes in her deposition and mood, sleep habits, and other things. I knew I had to keep her safe as well as keep my own sanity. 

Thankfully I had a former co-worker’s wife navigating her husband’s foray into the world of not only aging but having Alzheimer’s. She saw my struggle and stepped up to kindly point my way to resources I did not know about. They were helpful as the one office alone opened doors to resources for other needs as they evolved. I went to a caregiver support group initially and then switched to working one-on-one with staff to determine what to do each step of the way. 

The Northwest Regional Council (NWRC) has a series of resources for the aging and those with disabilities. A bit of a clearinghouse they have staff who work with tired caregivers who may be children and spouses of those impacted by age or disability, others who can fill out intimidating paperwork, and work with finding the right places to go for additional care. The council works with clients in Island, San Juan, Skagit and Whatcom counties. 

We sat down and went step by step to look at a spreadsheet of what local facilities would be a good fit as my mother needed more care than I could provide at home. We had to see what would accept her long-term care policy, where I could more easily visit her to continue to be part of her life in her next stage of life, and also which facilities would accept the Medicaid funding as not all facilities do. With the rise of COVID-19, which has happened since my own experience, it even more important to plan ahead as some facilities don’t even take wait lists at present. Don’t wait until the last moment. Know what your options are – in-home helps, respite care for tired caregivers, special group homes or nursing home facilities. 

It was nice to not make all of the decisions on my own and to have others more knowledgeable help me – for free. When I went to seek advice, at one point, from an elder law attorney, I found out there were few options and one charged $500 for a half-hour consult with no actions taken. 

NRRC is located at 600 Lakeway Drive, Bellingham. Due to COVID-19 protocols, look online at Community Based Care | Seniors, Adults with Disabilities | NWRC Northwest Regional Council (NWRC) (nwrcwa.org) for updated information.