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Caring for the Caregivers

When Alzheimer’s strikes, it’s not the patient who needs the most help.

Rene Conklin is a one-woman lifeline for hundreds of Binghamton area families living with Alzheimer’s. Conklin's job title is director of Binghamton University’s Elder Services Center at the Decker School of Nursing, but that doesn't begin to tell the story of what she represents to emotionally drained caregivers and her clients.

Conklin is the first point of contact for people who are terrified that they may have the disease. She conducts home visits and assessments, trains caregivers in communication and coping techniques, connects struggling families to valuable community resources, and perhaps more important than anything else, she listens.

“People are so grateful just to have someone to talk to who understands what they’re going through, just to have any kind of support and know they are not alone,” says Conklin. 

In any given week, Conklin receives a half-dozen phone calls from people who are scared that they or a loved one are suffering from the early stages of Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia. One man keeps forgetting where he parked his car at the grocery store. Another woman realizes that she’s overdrawn her bank account for the third month in a row. How many of these memory lapses can be attributed to the natural aging process and what should be cause for concern?

Conklin’s work begins with an office or home visit to take the client’s history, talk to family members and administer a basic cognitive exam called the Mini Mental State Examination (MMSE). Conklin then schedules a geriatric consultation with the geriatricians at the Johnson City Family Care center. Conklin’s services are provided to the community at no cost by the Decker School of Nursing at Binghamton University, and the consultation at Johnson City Family care is covered by Medicare.

If a client is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s or one of over 70 forms of dementia, Conklin becomes a source of support for the caregivers and family. She’s part educator, part case worker and part therapist — whatever the client and the family need most.

“It’s what you would call multi-disciplinary,’ says Conklin, who juggles around 200 active clients at any given time.

After working on and off in nursing homes for nearly 30 years, Conklin, who is 54, went back for her master’s degree in 2003 at the Binghamton University Department of Social Work. During the semester she works with graduate nursing students taking them with her on client home visits or clinic appointments.  The students also work with families to provide another level of assistance.

Find out more about the Elder Services Center and its many outreach and education programs for community volunteers and caregivers.

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Last Updated: 10/26/10