If you can’t help yourself, you can’t help others: new Island Health program offers support to caregivers

Reaching out for help or support can be difficult, and it can be even more difficult for caregivers helping to support a friend or loved one.

“A primary caregiver is a vital part of the healthcare team, but they still get burned out,” said Eryl Shermak, an Island Health social worker who has helped develop the new program. “Every caregiver’s situation is different, and everyone is on their own journey. The beauty of this program is that it has the flexibility to meet caregivers where they are at and walk alongside them. We support them to gain skills they need to live well and a safe place for them to talk about concerns.”


Eryl Shermak (left) caring for her mother Marion (right), a senior living with cancer

That safe place is Island Health’s new Caregiver Support Program, a program that is delivered virtually via Zoom and phone. It helps caregivers navigate the journey with a loved one or friend who’s living with serious illness, chronic conditions, or frailty.

“It is not uncommon for caregivers to find themselves in their roles unexpectedly and they may not have a circle of people to help share that role,” said Shermak. “Whether it’s an adult child looking after an elderly parent, a significant other caring for their partner, or a neighbour supporting a vulnerable senior next door – that’s caregiving – and caregivers don’t always know where to turn for help.”

The caregiver program is delivered over three months and offers one-to-one counselling, skills building workshops and group counselling. “The program is quite individualized,” explains Shermak. “It focuses on a caregiver’s goals and needs which could range from learning techniques to communicate with a loved one who has dementia to enhancing their skills to self-manage stress, anger, and grief.”

“Caregiving is probably the hardest thing I have ever done,” said Shauna, who recently completed the caregiver program. “I act as my father’s brain as he has no insight into his condition and can no longer plan or strategize his day. He has to be coached and cued, from getting out of bed and operating the TV remote to hygiene and dressing. There is also the endless food prep to make meals he can and wants to eat.”

Shauna moved to Ladysmith to look after her 92-year-old father, John, when he had a series of small strokes and began to succumb to vascular dementia. He required constant care so he could stay in his own home. After two years, caregiving was taking its toll on Shauna, both physically and emotionally. Shauna heard about the program on social media, and once accepted to the program, was assigned to social worker, Eryl Shermak.  

“Eryl is empathic, smart, and incisive,” said Shauna. “We talked about issues I was struggling with, like creating a plan for those medical crises that inevitably occur over a weekend, like falls. We talked about how things could go most easily for my father regarding placement into long-term-care, and then end-of-life planning. Eryl’s knowledge of the health care system was invaluable; she gave me confidence that my choices were strategic, and in my father’s best interest.” 

Emotionally and physically, healthy caregivers are better able to support and care for their loved one. 

“Caregiving comes with a lot of complicated feelings, many of which are labelled as unacceptable,” said Shauna. “I learned how to be curious, accepting, and compassionate about those feelings. Recognition and acceptance have allowed me to learn and adapt.”

In the spirit of collaboration, and with the goal of optimizing caregiver support on Vancouver Island, Island Health consulted with physicians, held focus groups with clinicians in Island Health, and worked closely with Family Caregivers of BC, the University of Alberta, and the Alzheimer Society of B.C. to inform the creation of the Caregiver Program. Island Health also conferred with geriatric psychiatrist, Dr. Elisabeth Drance, who specializes in dementia caregiving.

“We have created a program that focuses on caregivers with complex caregiving needs that can’t be supported by other community services,” said Kristina Felt, Manager of Seniors Health at Island Health. “Some caregivers are so busy caring for their loved one that they don’t have time outside of providing care to attend an in-person class or visit a counselor. Our virtual program also makes it easier for caregivers living in small communities to access help from the comfort of their home.”

Shermak says it is important that caregivers get the support they need. 

“As someone with firsthand experience as a caregiver, I understand the challenges and emotional toll that caregiving can have. Caregivers often put themselves on the back-burner because there is so much focus put on the person they are caring for. But if you can’t help yourself, you can’t help others. You have to be able to have strength to give that strength away.”

To learn more about Island Health’s Caregiver Support program, visit Island Health's Community Virtual Care page or to self-refer call your local Community Access Centre:

South Island: 250-388-2273 Toll Free: 1-888-533-2273 
Central Island: 250-739-5749 Toll Free: 1-877-734-4101 
North Island: 250-331-8570 Toll Free: 1-866-928-4988