Classes Help Family Caregivers Learn to Take Better Care of Themselves

AMES, Iowa — When caregivers take better care of themselves, they can provide better care to their older adult loved ones. That’s the philosophy behind Powerful Tools for Caregivers, a series of classes provided by Iowa State University Extension and Outreach.

The “tools” family caregivers learn in the six-week series help them reduce stress, improve their caregiving confidence and establish balance in their lives, said Donna Donald, an ISU Extension and Outreach family life program specialist. Caregivers also learn to communicate their needs, make tough decisions about their loved ones’ care and locate resources that will help them in their everyday caregiving role.

These classes for caregivers are scheduled in local communities throughout the year. Classes are taught by pairs of trained and certified class leaders. Special training sessions for class leaders are held twice a year. The next class leader training session is April 26-27 in Urbandale.

Class leaders must be certified in order to plan and teach a class in Iowa, Donald explained. She and Kristi Cooper, also an ISU Extension and Outreach family life program specialist, are master trainers who provide the two-day experiential training that leads to certification.

Who Is a Family ‘Caregiver’?

“When we define a family caregiver, we define it pretty broadly. Caregiving can be done, as in, somebody lives in your home, or perhaps mom is in a care center an hour away. You still are a person helping to see that they are receiving the care they need — and that makes you a caregiver,” Donald said.

“ISU Extension and Outreach has worked with the aging population off and on over the years, but the emerging issue, for us, is working with the caregiver population,” Donald said.

Powerful Tools for Caregivers is a national evidence-based education program with class leaders trained in 32 states. Evaluations indicate program participants improve self-care behaviors, management of emotions, self-efficacy and use of community resources.

“It’s intended to help people develop skills and tools so they can thrive in their role as a caregiver and not just survive. We want them to be able to have a good life, a happy life; and that, in turn, will make them a much better caregiver,” Donald said.

ISU Extension and Outreach is the lead organization bringing Powerful Tools for Caregivers to Iowa communities.

“We now have over 80 people trained to deliver the program in Iowa. It’s in over a third of the counties and we are growing very rapidly. The people that we are training to deliver the program are volunteers in the community, some of them are professionals, many of them have or are currently living the life of a caregiver, and they certainly all have a passion for what this means for families,” Donald said.

An additional 25 trained class leaders are located in surrounding communities in Illinois, Minnesota and Nebraska and work closely with ISU Extension and Outreach.

Caregivers Share What They’ve Learned

Four women who participated in the fall 2011 class leader training in Newton talked about what Powerful Tools for Caregivers has meant to them in their own caregiving roles.

Linda Richardson said she’s learned not to get angry with her mother, for whom she provides care. She now understands that she gets frustrated because of what her mother has to go through. She’s also learned that “it’s OK to feel guilty, but also understand why you’re feeling guilty and go beyond that.”

Jaleyn Dobbs stressed the communication skills she learned through the class. “There are times when I have to talk to my sisters and explain what’s happening. They don’t always understand, because they’re far away. When I can impress upon them that I’m doing the best I can with the situation, then I think that will help them and me, also, and ultimately my mother, which is very important,” Dobbs said.

Joan Nydle also stressed the importance of communication. She said, “Being able to cover all of the things with both of my parents — learning how to communicate those needs in a positive way with my siblings — has been very important to learn.”

Kimberly Cooper summed it up, saying, “I think that Powerful Tools for Caregivers is very powerful because it teaches you how to take care of yourself so you can take care of somebody else.”

For more information about Powerful Tools for Caregivers, contact ISU Extension and Outreach family life specialists Donna Donald, 641-446-4723,, or Kristi Cooper, 319-377-9839,