Why foster families need to build positive relationships with birth families

When I recently dropped my foster kids off for their visit with their birth parents, my toddler was excited. He had a new doll he wanted to show his mother and father.

When his parents arrived, he ran to them and proudly showed them his new toy. His dad picked him up and showered him with hugs and kisses. The little guy kissed his dad back and then reached for me, saying “Mommy kiss!”

I paused, uncertain how his father might handle the situation. But his dad walked right over to me and said, “Of course you can give Mommy kisses, too,” and held his son as he planted slobbery kisses on my cheek.

This is what foster care should look like.

The little boy has no hesitation in showing love for his parents in front of me, but also no concerns in showing his love for me in front of them.

He loves all of his parents and expresses it with typical toddler abandon. But can this situation be hard for the adults? Absolutely!

This boy has been in my home 100 days now. I have tucked him into bed and kissed him goodnight 100 times. For 100 days this precious little boy has called me “Mommy” and I will admit that my heart aches a little watching him run from me to his first mommy and throw himself into her arms.

And although she has never said it, I am sure that it must be unbearably hard for her to watch her son kiss me and call me “Mommy,” too. After all, she gave birth to him and raised him for two years.

I cannot imagine what it does to her to watch her son love another mother.

Nevertheless, we are all making the situation work, loving this little boy together and allowing him to love us all, too. For his sake—and for the sake of his infant sister—we are all putting our own hearts aside and focusing on what is best for the kids.

My husband and I have been fostering or parenting children adopted from foster care for 13 years. Twelve children have called us Mom and Dad, seven little foster loves who were ours for a season before going home or moving on to another family member, one “home-grown” daughter, two sons adopted from foster care and our current two babies, who are our ‘for-now’ son and daughter.

Our experience over the years has taught us a few things about building positive relationships with birth families.

Why does it matter?

In Pennsylvania, the average time a child spends in foster care is 20 months. So you are probably going to be seeing your foster child’s parents for a long time. If the case transitions to adoption, you may well be connected to these people for many years to come.

I am not saying building a positive relationship is an easy thing to do. Depending on what led to the child’s being placed in foster care, it can be really hard to smile and be friendly to your child’s birth parents.

But foster parenting is all about doing hard things, and it is really important to build the best relationship you can. The first meeting with birth parents, in fact, can set the tone for the relationship, so I think it is very important to make a good first impression.

Occasionally, however, I will hear a fellow foster parent question whether it’s important to have a good relationship with your child’s birth parents. I believe it’s vital—for the following reasons:

• Your foster child’s parents, no matter what their mistakes, are people worthy of respect, kindness and grace. I think every human is worthy of this.

• Your child loves them. I have had foster parents argue this point, saying essentially that “this is the person who neglected/hurt/hit/left/and so on the child; how could they love him or her?” Years of fostering has made me understand that, no matter parents’ mistakes, your foster child loves his or her birth parents. Children will notice how you treat these people they love.

• If your foster child is reunified with his or her family and you have had a good relationship with the birth parents, you may well get updates on how the child is doing. I think one of the hardest parts of foster care involves loving a child who leaves your home and then never hearing how the child is doing. If you can build a good rapport, the child’s parents may send you updates; it always helps me to know the kids I have loved are doing well now that they are back home.

• Although we know reunification does not happen in every case—in fact, about 25% of foster-care cases end in adoption of the child, often by the foster parents—the goal of foster care is nevertheless reunification with the birth family. So keeping all relationships positive is ultimately in the best interests of everyone, especially the child.

(And, in those instances the case moves toward termination of parental rights, birth parents may be given the option of signing for termination voluntary. Some have when they know their child is with foster parents who love them, take good care of them and are willing to adopt. If your child’s birth parents perceive you as rude to them, mean or dismissive, they are not nearly as likely to agree to a plan in which you will raise this child you love.)

Now that we have established why it is so important to build good relationships with birth parents, let’s discuss how exactly you do that!

—Eleanor Delewski, Diakon Adoption & Foster Care parent

Continued in part 2, For foster families: Building positive relationships with birth families (to be published in two weeks)

Supporting an aging loved one during short-term rehab

I took a 95-year-old relative for minor surgery recently and, afterward, she complained just a little about having had to put up with the inconvenience of the procedure.

As several family members have chuckled on occasion, our relative is quite fortunate overall. While she had to care for her husband as he faced health issues for a number of years, she’s had relatively few significant health issues herself.

And she still lives alone—and drives! Undoubtedly, most of us hope for that future.

Unfortunately, as we age, the likelihood increases that we may face varying issues including chronic health conditions or other diseases, surgeries or falls. Often, those situations can be improved with short-term rehabilitation.

Short-term rehab encompasses physical, occupational and speech therapies that can help people reach their individual potential and, quite frequently, return to the lives they love.

The care team at a short-term rehabilitation center creates a personalized plan that can help older adults regain strength, manage medical conditions and transition back home. In addition to offering care around-the-clock, these centers also typically offer education and resources for both seniors and their families.

Many short-term rehabilitation centers, such as those operated by Diakon Senior Living Services, offer private and semi-private suites, therapy gyms and personalized instruction, nutritious dining designed to enhance health, and space for socializing. The goal is an overall positive experience that helps patients thrive.

If my relative required short-term rehab, it’s likely she would say she did not need it. She would not be alone in that self-assessment. Many older adults tend to decline short-term rehabilitation after being released from the hospital. Often, this is because they’d rather go home and don’t see the value in rehabilitation, according to Aging Care.

You can help them to understand their stay is only temporary—and it can lead to their remaining healthier longer. In fact, if they return home too soon and aren’t yet healed properly, they can be setting themselves up for a longer stay in rehabilitation later on.

To make this process easier on your loved one, click here to read about a few things you can do.

Making benefits even more appealing

It was more than four decades ago, but I can still vividly recall the setting.

I was sitting in an office of Human Resources, at that time called “Personnel,” on the second floor of Tressler-Lutheran Service Associates’ Camp Hill, Pennsylvania, office building, converted from the old Lutheran Home on the West Shore.

Six months had passed since my initial employment with Tressler and my discussion with one of the two staff members then in Personnel centered on my selection of benefits, which were now available to me.

Did I want to sign up for a pension contribution?

“Nope,” I asserted, testament to my naiveté at that age. I later attributed that poor decision to the small salary I was receiving; after all, it was 1978 and the salary at my former position, as a newspaper reporter and editor, had been even smaller.

Fortunately, I eventually came to my senses and signed up for Tressler’s 403(b) plan.

While most employees now know better than to wait for benefits, especially as employers focus on comprehensive orientation programs, many organizations still impose a “probationary period” before employees can receive benefits such as health-care coverage.

Diakon has been one those employers, but no longer.

Beginning Aug. 1, Diakon joins the list of forward-focused organizations offering “Day 1 health-care benefits.” That means new employees—both full- and part-time—can immediately sign up for health-care coverage, including medical, dental, vision and prescription drug coverage.

Other benefits, including tuition assistance, retirement plan, and disability insurance, still require waiting for the probationary period to end, but nearly all employees are most concerned about health-care insurance, so the change is a very welcomed one.

Making Day 1 employment today much better—and smarter—than mine 41 years ago.

 By William Swanger, MA, APR, Fellow PRSA
Senior Vice President
Corporate Communications & Public Relations

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Personal Care: Fact vs. Myth

I love when we’re able to help people gain the care they need, but often don’t want to seek, typically for a variety of reasons.

Right now, several Diakon senior living communities, Diakon Senior Living – Hagerstown among them, are helping motivate people to seek personal care or, as it is known here in Maryland, assisted living—through various incentives.

But why might older adults who need such care not seek it immediately? Certainly, as people grow older, they may notice changes in abilities. Whether someone has suffered a fall, is recovering from a surgery or simply needs assistance completing the typical tasks of daily living, personal care may be of great benefit.

But when some older adults hear the phrase “personal care,” they may have a negative reaction.

They think, for example, that they don’t need any help and that they are still sufficiently independent to continue caring for themselves.

That perspective is understandable, but family members and other friends may quickly spot the need for assistance.

What are signs a loved one may benefit from personal care?

Is a loved one no longer taking care of him- or herself? Wearing the same clothing for more than a day? No longer seeming to care about appearance?

If so, the person may be having trouble completing these tasks or attending to basic needs. Not only can this situation decrease confidence, but it can also continue to affect independence.

If loved ones react negatively to the idea of personal care, they may be falling victim to myths they’ve heard. To combat this, you could help to dispel those myths …

●    Personal care will decrease my independence. This couldn’t be further from the truth; in fact, personal care can actually enrich your quality of life enough that you may become more independent. For example, if you don’t need to spend time worrying about certain activities of daily life, you may be able to focus more fully on wellness, improving your health through exercise and participating in more lifelong-learning opportunities.

To read more about dispelling the myths about personal care, please click here.

Giving at-risk youths their second chance …


This wasn’t my typical assignment.

Stephanie Rivera had accepted a ride with a family member and his friend, not knowing that decision would have an immediate impact on her life. Unaware that the car had been stolen, the 17-year-old found herself in trouble with the law. Instead of starting her high-school senior year looking forward to prom and graduation, she faced having to clear her record and pay off costly fines.

It was at this point that Stephanie, who had never been in trouble with the law, really needed someone to be her guide through what lay ahead. Fortunately, she was motivated to succeed and accepted responsibility for her actions.

As a case-manager for Diakon Youth Services’ Bridge Program, I walk alongside and mentor students enrolled in our community-based, weekday support and intervention service through their county’s juvenile probation office.

Unlike Stephanie, most of them have been in trouble multiple times. Based on a therapeutic approach to accountability, the program helps these adolescents build a foundation of self-discipline and respect for family, teachers, the law and self.

In addition to working with them on educational and workforce-development goals, I offer them my time.

For Stephanie, this has meant things such as picking her up after school, driving her to her court hearings, taking her to lunch on her birthday and simply providing an ear to listen. With that guidance and a little TLC, she got her permit, a job and faithfully saved week after week to pay off her restitution. She also graduated from high school and enrolled in college.

Despite her hard work, however, her long-range plan of joining the Army remained out of reach. As a minor, she had had her fine grouped with that of her family member and friend, who refused to pay their share. If she wanted to move on and be released from probation, she had to come up with $500 on her own.

Knowing it’s always important to have a Plan B, I approached my supervisor about the possibility of helping Stephanie through Diakon’s Second Chance Fund. The fund helps students who have done well in our program and completed their goals and probation requirements, but do not have all the necessary resources to make restitution.

Recognizing Stephanie’s hard work, my supervisor approved my request and shortly thereafter, Stephanie learned she would be released from probation, her juvenile record expunged. Those steps cleared the way for her to be the first in her family to attend college and eventually join the Army.

Because of generous donors who support Diakon’s Second Chance Fund, students such as Stephanie, who do what we ask of them but fall short in terms of financial ability, will not miss out on their dreams.

They have earned them. They deserve it. And they have gained their second chance.

Marlene Ortiz is a case-manager for Diakon Youth Services’ Bridge program in Chester County. To learn how you can make a donation to the Second Chance Fund, click here.

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Six drug-free treatment options for people with cognitive illnesses

While cures may not currently be possible for many forms of cognitive illnesses, are there ways to treat people without the use of drugs?

Some believe it is possible to help manage some of the challenging behaviors and symptoms with a number of drug-free treatment options, including holistic therapies. It’s important to note, however, that many of these are based on trial and error, not scientific research.

In fact, according to the Alzheimer’s Association®, “The rigorous scientific research required by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for the approval of a prescription drug is not required by law for the marketing of dietary supplements or ‘medical foods.’” This means that side effects, uses and efficiency may not be safely monitored. For that reason, many people tend to opt for a different approach: holistic therapies and lifestyle changes.

Options for older adults with dementia …

There are a number of steps you might test when trying to help a person with Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. These approaches can affect everyone differently, but through trial and error, you may be better able to help a loved one.

1.    Aromatherapy. Some people may become agitated, angry or even depressed as a result of dementia; it can thus be difficult for them to relax or calm down. In these cases, aromatherapy may be able to help. Try rubbing a lavender-scented lotion on their hands or spraying a refreshing citrus room spray to lift spirits in the morning.

2.    Massage Therapy. If your loved one doesn’t mind being touched, massage therapy might be something that is good for them. It can not only help to relax the person, but also release oxytocin to promote peace and calm.

3.    Pet Therapy. There are few people who don’t instantly light up when they see an animal. Known to be successful in an array of situations, pet therapy can help break up your loved one’s routine and bring joy and happiness. Whether the person prefers the company of a dog or a cat, friendly purrs and wagging tails can make a difference.

For additional drug-free treatment suggestions, please click here!

The power of community

I recently heard someone speak about the importance of community. I was intrigued by an unusual experience he cited, called the Roseto effect.

According to UnimedLiving.com, “In 1964 a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association examined a population of recent Italian immigrants in Roseto, a small town in the state of Pennsylvania. The study was instigated because the town doctor was completely baffled by the Rosetans’ near immunity to heart disease. He reported his observations” and an extensive study was conducted, comparing health statistics in the community to those of neighboring towns.

In fact, from 1954 to 1961, Roseto had nearly no heart attacks within the population of men 55 to 64, normally a high-risk group, and men older than 65 had a death rate of 1%, while nationally the average was 2%, despite other behaviors (such as smoking) considered unhealthy and sometimes-hazardous working conditions.

The local physician attributed the lower heart-disease rate to lower stress. Researchers suggested “the quality of family relationships and the social milieu may be pertinent to the occurrence of or protection against death from myocardial infarction.” (The Huffington Post also writes about it here in more detail.)

Interestingly, as social structures changed and the community grew less tight-knit, heart-disease rates rose to be comparable to the rest of the country.

There are certainly no guarantees that living in a close-knit community will protect you against heart disease but, at least for me, the Roseto effect makes sense.

When we live in healthy communities, assisting one another and enjoying life together, it just makes sense that stress levels are lower. With stress reportedly one factor in heart disease, it seems logical to associate life in close community with others to taking at least one step closer to physical, emotional and spiritual health.

Creating that type of community lies at the heart of what senior living services providers such as Diakon do.

The very design of our senior living communities, the amenities we offer and the events we craft are all designed to engender a sense of community not only among our residents but also between residents and staff members and residents and the general community.

Again, no one can claim creating such community will ensure lowered heart concerns or even decreased stress levels, but it certainly cannot hurt. And when you speak with our residents, many mention the newfound sense of community they have found with us.

By Melissa Kindall
Manager, Social Media and Digital Communications Manager
Corporate Communications & Public Relations

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Five ways a CCRC offers peace of mind and security

We love to do educational events at our senior living communities.

Recently, we’ve tried to hold unified events across many of our campuses. For example, in June most of the campuses have speakers detailing the financial benefits of Continuing Care Retirement Communities (which some parts of the industry are terming Life Plan Communities).

That’s an excellent subject because, in fact, retirement communities do offer adult adults and their families both peace of mind and security.

As we age, we understand that there’s very little in life that’s set in stone. Life is unpredictable, and in the blink of an eye, things can change. This doesn’t just include everyday plans, but also finances, lifestyles and even abilities and health.

Certainly, it can be easy to become focused on the unknown, but that’s no way to live. And that’s not how most older adults want to live in retirement—and they shouldn’t have to.

Continuing Care Retirement Communities, such as those operated by Diakon Senior Living Services, are the perfect option for older adults who want to take advantage of an active lifestyle, but also want the peace of mind of available health care and knowing their needs will be met if their health changes. And that’s not to mention the wide array of other benefits.

When considering a move to a CCRC, it can be easy to look just at cost; however, the value far outweighs the cost. Here are just a few of the many ways our communities offer peace of mind and security:
 
1.    Worry-Free Living. CCRCs allow seniors to experience a lifestyle in which they don’t need to worry about anything. All of their needs are taken care of from care and home maintenance to housekeeping and, in many cases, dining. Residents simply focus on doing whatever they’d like to do, whether it’s enjoying programming, relaxing or grabbing a bite to eat with a friend.

To continue reading about the other ways CCRCs offer peace of mind and security, please click here.

A Father’s Day Reflection

As I look back on our adoption journey, I realize that our non-traditional family is happy not only because we went into the process with our eyes wide open, but also because we expected nothing from our children and yet we got everything in return.

Steve and I had been together for about 10 years when we started to think about adopting a child. We were at a point where everything was really good for us—we had a great relationship, a nice home, supportive families and we traveled quite a bit. While an infant or toddler was out of the question, we wanted to share our life with an older child.

Although we were initially concerned that our non-traditional family might face some challenges to adoption, we are glad we chose to work with Diakon Adoption & Foster Care.

Despite the fact they had not worked with a lot of same-sex couples at that point, it was never an issue for them or the children. Part of the preparation process was explaining to the children that they may go to a family different from their birth family. What they found was that we weren’t defined by our relationship. They saw us as fun—and we treated each other with respect.

Our first son was 12 years old when he arrived. Although we thought we were prepared, the reality was much harder. Fortunately, we were open to the coaching and support that comes from Diakon and, over the next eight years, we opened our home to three more sons between the ages of 8 and 12. Each of them had been placed with traditional families before coming to us, but those placements did not work out.

While Steve and I both had stable family lives and had never been in trouble, there isn’t anything we haven’t been involved with because of our kids—police, probation, trauma counseling, regular counseling, you name it. At the same time, we never made them into something they weren’t. As a same-sex couple, we have always had to depend on people accepting us for who we are, and we did that with our kids.

If there is any advice I can offer to someone considering adopting older, at-risk kids, it is that you can’t expect them to come into your life and fill a void for you. You can’t put that pressure on them. They need you to be 100 percent in this for them. That takes patience and a willingness to go through a lot of trial and error.

Our goal was to see our sons graduate high school. We taught them good work ethics and that, despite their obstacles, they could become anything they want to be.

What we found is that while it may have taken longer and been tougher than we expected, we got there together.

Wayne Hopkins and Steve Renninger are the adoptive parents of four young men who continue to challenge and enrich their lives, most recently with the addition of their first grandchild.