Category: Family Life Services

Preventing deaths that are preventable

In the early days of my career, I remember hearing stories that made me question whether behavioral health was really for me. As mental health and substance abuse professionals, we see and hear a lot.

Ultimately, though, I realized that helping people in their darkest moments comes with a heavy weight but not an unbearable one. Soon, I was getting used to hearing stories that, before, I wouldn’t have fathomed could be true.

“Used to” seems an odd way to put it, but I do not know how else to say it. As therapists, we get used to hearing stories of trauma, used to late-night calls from an individual in crisis, used to advocating for change and then hearing why change didn’t occur. We gladly take on these challenges.

What we don’t get used to is people dying.

Supporting colleagues during a stressful time

Workplace stress can be a serious issue—even without a pandemic.

Now, COVID-19 presents additional and unique mental health stressors, particularly for health-care and frontline workers.

But it’s also likely to affect you, either personally or indirectly, no matter your occupation. Disregarding your or a coworker’s stress is an option, but it’s probably not a good one.

So what can you do?

Counseling staff members with Diakon Family Life Services offer suggestions in response to typical questions:

What are warning signs that a coworker may be overly stressed?

1. A notable change in appearance, mood or personality

2. Negativity

3. Being overly sarcastic

4. Missing sessions or meetings

5. Not responding to emails, calls or texts after multiple attempts

6. Irritability

7. Being excessively fatigued

8. Becoming withdrawn and isolated

How can you be helpful and address your concern with a coworker without seeming critical?

Ideally, you may have a relationship with your co-workers or team member that allows a conversation to happen along these lines …

Maintaining mental wellness during times of stress

World Mental Health Day 2020 feels like the most significant version of this day yet. The months of loss and isolation have affected all of us differently and prioritizing mental health has never been more important than it is now.

Mental health pertains to resilience and our ability to meet life’s challenges in a manner that enhances our chances at mastery of situations and adaptation to them. Just like physical health, mental health requires activities that promote wellness, flexibility and strength.

Mental illness describes the many afflictions that can affect our thoughts and mood. These illnesses, in turn, affect our emotional state and sense of well-being. As with physical illnesses, mental illness can have a significant impact on our ability to reach personal goals in our work, education and relationships.

Recognizing and treating anxiety in children

A 16-year-old client of Diakon Family Life Services experienced persistent symptoms of anxiety, including difficulties in sleeping and excessive worry about school and interactions at school. Before long, he was using drugs to cope with the situation.

Through work with a Diakon Family Life Services therapist, the young man was able to learn new ways to reduce his stress and, in turn, was able to conquer his anxiety. Skills he learned included deep breathing to assist with anxiety-reduction, positive self-talk, how to “work” with pressure instead of against it and agenda-creation to manage school work. That step helped to reduce stress associated with homework and related projects.

And, of course, he is not alone.

A 13-year-old girl requested counseling services for high anxiety and an inability to concentrate in school. After four months of therapy, however, she reports her anxiety to be at an all-time low. She can now engage in more social activities without anxiety, increasing her number of friends and gaining renewed interest in artistic endeavors. She benefitted significantly from talking through her anxiety, learning thought-stopping techniques, and engaging in calming skills such as mindfulness.

Do you have a child or teen about whom you are concerned? If so, Diakon Family Life Services staff members answer the following questions they often hear from parents and guardians. Of course, no article such as this is a substitute for professional therapy and if you believe your child might benefit from that, we urge you to contact us or another therapist for guidance.

Q. What is a common trigger for stress that most parents are surprised their child or teen is experiencing?

A. Unfortunately, parents are often surprised by how much their own stress affects the level of stress their child is experiencing. Plus, children and adolescents are often struggling to manage their own stress, which just becomes compounded by stress within the family itself. In fact, many parents are unaware how much their children worry about adult matters that they hear their parents discuss. Among key factors causing stress for young people are relationship issues, things they see in social media or on the internet, bullying, parental friction, school and peer relationships, parental expectations and the concerns and stresses friends are experiencing.

Q. What behaviors should parents or caregivers watch for to determine if children are struggling with anxiety?

A. There are a number of behavioral changes for which parents should stay alert. Among them are:

• Being nervous, appearing worried, easily distracted; withdrawing from family and friends

• A tendency to isolate, avoid, be panicked or secretive; hesitant about social interactions; paranoid about life events

• Angry or easily irritated

• Changes in sleep patterns such as falling or staying asleep or unexpected mood swings, such as crying

• Cell-phone attachment

• Avoidance of certain activities, appearing stressed

• Gastrointestinal issues

• Restrictive or over-eating; hair-pulling and self-harm (in extreme cases)

• Reports of physical symptoms such as headache or stomachache

• Not wanting to attend school

• Excessive video-game use, drug or alcohol use

• Not spending as much time with friends as usual

• Lack of motivation

Q. What can parents do in their own lives to make children and youths less anxious?

A. One of the more important actions is to provide a safe home environment and keep your own anxiousness in check. Parents also can help structure their children’s lives so they have a more predictable schedule, responsibilities and bedtimes. Further, parents need to be aware of their use or overuse of substances; reduce preoccupation with electronics and cell phones, along with social media. Spend one-on-one time with each child.

Beyond that, you can model healthy habits and positive coping skills, as well as ways to handle stressful situations. Discuss your availability and willingness to listen to children, expressing hope that any negative situations will change and always talking in a calm and loving manner. Certainly, keep open communication, give children and youths their “space” and avoid telling young people about problems that do not concern them, such as relationship issues, finances or family drama. Be sure to provide children with a safe place to express themselves without judgment.

Other suggestions include limiting screen time and social-media use, having realistic boundaries, increasing time for family talk and routinely asking children about any concerns.

Q. What’s the difference between having “normal” anxiety and an anxiety disorder?

A. While no definition fits every situation, an anxiety disorder is more severe, with the anxiety causing great distress and interfering with the activities of daily life. In fact, it will tend to make normal tasks a struggle. Regular anxiety is situational, whereas an anxiety disorder will occupy thoughts for more days than not over a longer period of time; it typically involves chronic anxious thinking patterns.

As overall information, anxiety is the body’s reaction to a “trigger” and is generally a short-term experience, being a response to a situation such as getting married, a birth or even taking a driver’s test. In some cases, this type of stress can have a positive effect by generating motivation. An anxiety disorder is a sustained mental health disorder that can be triggered by stress and impedes your ability to carry out your normal daily activities; often, it is a response to a real or imagined threat.  

It’s important to remember that everyone experiences anxiety and can typically cope with it. Coping becomes much more difficult when it involves, for example, excessive and perpetual worrying that interferes with life; such a diagnosable anxiety disorder would need further attention by professionals.

Feeling overwhelmed

I stared at my rambunctious foster dog running circles through my living room wondering how on earth after two weeks she was still living with us.

I did not anticipate having her this long; she was with us strictly as a temporary rescue mission. She’s a great dog, but we just don’t have the space or time to do this long-term.

Around work and my normal commitments, I’ve been helping my oldest daughter organize a benefit concert as a fundraiser for her upcoming mission trip. My youngest daughter is in her post-season playoffs for field hockey, which translates to my being at games, college recruiting visits, making mac and cheese for team pasta parties and helping plan the end-of-the-year banquet.

And now it’s early November. You know what that means. It doesn’t matter that you just handed out candy to trick-or-treaters because now it’s officially the holiday season.

So how is someone who is already feeling overwhelmed head into the most overwhelming time of the year?

Recovery from addiction

Randall has worked with a Diakon Family Life Services counselor since he left rehab, as he continues his recovery from addiction. He is in his eighth year of sobriety.

I started drinking when I was 16. I stopped at age 51. During those years of alcohol addiction, I also used drugs for a period of time. Drinking and partying became an everyday ritual, something I believed was part of me. When it all got so bad—when I found myself in such a dark place that I was unable to help the people I cared about the most, my family—that’s when I realized I needed help.

How are those New Year’s resolutions going?

Now that we are almost halfway through the year, it’s a great time to reflect on our New Year’s resolutions.

I think we may find, however, that many of us (myself included) have not changed much. A habit needs more than just a holiday to make or break it. Habits are adaptations—specifically, coping skills—that we create to deal with daily life.

Traditional thinking is that it takes 28 days to change a habit. Whether we are talking about diet, spending habits or some type of rehab, individuals equate change to this magic number.

However, latest research shows that 66 days is the actual number. That is quite a difference!

And merely wishing and waiting till day 66 will not get us to our goals either. If you already quit your resolutions back in February, here are a few suggestions to help get you back on track.

Helpful holiday tips: How to visit someone with Alzheimer’s disease or similar illness

The holidays can be a very emotional time for everyone, including families and friends who have loved ones dealing with Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of cognitive illnesses.

For those affected by cognitive degeneration disease, the biggest thing to remember is to be accepting of what people feel.

Holidays can be filled with a wide range of emotions ranging from pure joy to utter sadness. Regardless of the emotion, accept it and try not to judge your feelings or the feelings of others during this time. Holidays may feel and look different because traditions are not able to be followed exactly as before, but that does not mean you cannot have a meaningful experience.

Here are a few tips that can help make your holidays happier:

  • Take a different perspective on the visit

One of the reasons visits can be a challenge is disease progression. Over the course of the disease, attention span changes, interests may vary and memories fade in and out. You may not be able to talk to the person the way you used to. Maybe you used to sit and have tea with your loved one. Now she can no longer sit for long periods of time or maybe she no longer likes tea. This changes our ability to connect, so we have to rethink our approach to the visit.

 

  • Step outside your world

Forget what you know to be true and enter into their world. Often loved ones’ perceptions may be different from yours. For instance, if they can’t remember something in the past, do not argue with them. Arguing or pleading with them to remember something can increase frustration for everyone. Contradicting their reality does not work when you are visiting with someone whose brain has a difficult time making sense of the world around them.

 

  • Be prepared to participate in an activity

Often, an activity such as listening to music or looking through a photo album may help make the visit enjoyable because it allows you to make a connection. If your loved one is in a care facility, reach out to the staff to inquire about fitting activities.

 

For example, a direct caregiver may be able to tell you that your loved one has a newfound love of sitting next to the garden and watching birds, something he or she may have never done before. Or perhaps a loved one has developed a new enjoyment of vanilla milkshakes or hamburgers. Use whatever current interests are to guide the visit.

 

Times can also play a factor in visits. Again, use your facility staff as a resource; they may be able to tell you that your loved one gets tired in the afternoon and when she gets tired, she gets tearful.  Similarly, if you are bringing home a loved one for the holidays, the staff may share with you the best time to take her out and when to bring her back to reintegrate her into her surroundings.

 

Remember, as the disease progresses, likes, interests and best times to visit may change. What may work on one visit may not work on another. Try to stay flexible with your goals and expectations.

 

  • Don’t ask loved ones to do something they can’t do

It is often hard for their brain to recall memories. Do not ask them ‘who am I?’ or encourage them to ‘think harder’ when they cannot recall a person or memory. As much as you desperately want to maintain a connection, asking them to do something beyond their cognitive function may cause stress and aggravation.

 

  • Embrace the present

Cognitive impairments are heartbreaking diseases. It’s difficult to watch someone you love deteriorate and change into a totally different person in front of your eyes.

 

This transition induces grief and prompts questions such as “how do I still love this person if he or she is not the person I knew?” Although it may seem as if your loved one is slipping away, remember that a person with dementia wants to remember you, but his or her brain is just not physically capable of doing that.

 

Although you desperately want to maintain your previous connection, the greatest gift you can give yourself or your loved one is a meaningful visit reflective of the present.

 

Know that, even with these tips, a visit can be difficult. Sometimes, you may not know what to say or do.

 

Regardless, acknowledge that you are doing the best you can. If you “go with the flow,” more often than not you will have a successful visit.

—Michelle Gaugler
Personal Care Administrator
Luther Crest, Allentown, Pennsylvania

With 24 years of experience in long-term care, Gaugler understands the struggles facing residents with memory-related illnesses and their families. Dedicated to enhancing life, she has contributed to memory support for patients in all levels of care.


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adopting children with special needs

Serving children with special medical needs

Working in the field of adoption and foster care for 42 years, Marcia Moll is a social worker with a master’s degree in early childhood development. As the mother of two grown adoptive children, she understands firsthand how unconditional love for a child can transform a family. Below, she discusses a new Diakon’s foster care program, designed to touch the lives of children with special medical needs throughout eastern and central Pennsylvania.


Medically fragile foster care can change lives!

A little girl was hospitalized for six months in a children’s hospital waiting for an organ transplant. She spent most of her time being cared for by the hospital staff because her birth family was not involved. The county came to us at Diakon Adoption & Foster Care and asked if we had a family who would be a foster family until her transplant. A family stepped forward. 

They had adopted a child in the past and, unfortunately, that child had passed away. This family understood that a child should live in a family environment instead of a hospital setting. 

Fortunately, the little girl’s foster parents were able to visit once or twice a week. They met with the nurses and doctors and learned to care for the child. After eight months of hospitalization, she was finally able to be released to her new foster family. The family ended up adopting her, knowing full well that her survival rate—because of her age and the type of organ needed—is less than 50 percent. 

Yet, the difference they made through their love and commitment is outstanding. The little girl is now living the life of a typical child—she is not lying in a hospital bed being cared for by hospital staff; rather, she has a family and has blossomed to a point no one ever expected.  

Medically fragile foster care: A special child and a special 

Medically fragile foster care involves a child in the foster care system who has a continuing medical condition. A child’s condition may be something easily maintained with medication and routine doctor’s appointments—such as asthma. Or it can be a more severe or life-threatening diagnosis, such as cystic fibrosis. A child may or may not be ambulatory and sometimes medical equipment may be needed for the children to live the best life they can. Although the medical conditions are diverse, the children have one thing in common: They need to be cared for by a loving family.  

The program serves the needs of county children and youth workers who need foster families to care for a child with medical needs—in hopes the child will eventually be reunited with his or her birth family.  Foster families ensure that the child receives the appropriate medical care while also offering stability. 

The families also serve as mentors for the birth family by helping them fully understand the medical issues involved. In cases in which children cannot be reunited with their birth family, we hope the foster family can become a permanent resource and eventually adopt the child. 

Medically fragile conditions arise in varying situations

In most cases, children with medically fragile conditions come to us directly from a hospital setting, often because their medical condition elevated to a point they needed hospital care. If a child is born with a medical condition, the birth parent may feel totally overwhelmed and the child may need more support than the birth family can provide. 

In other cases, some children are born healthy and medical disorders develop or conditions arise as a result of abuse or neglect.  If a child is suffering as a result of parental negligence, it may not be the goal to unify the child with the birth parent until the birth family receives proper services and the situation is rectified.  

Weencourage any family already thinking about fostering or adopting to look within their hearts to consider a child who has a medical condition. Don’t sell yourself short. Our life experiences often prepare us for caring for a child with medical needs.  

Maybe, for example, we have a family member with diabetes or asthma or another condition and we could use this knowledge in offering care for the child. But even if families do not have an understanding of a particular medical diagnosis, they just have to be open to learning. The situation may not always be easy, but what seems to help them through it is their unwavering desire to help a child. 

We are here to help 

At Diakon, we believe strongly in providing support services for all of its foster families. We offer general training that prepares a family to bring a child into their home. And for medically-fragile program foster families, we ensure they receive the proper training to care for a child with medical needs. 

In some instances, we may arrange training provided by hospital staff, medical supply representatives or our own staff. Regardless, we work as a team. We will not place a child in a home until the family members have a level of confidence in their ability to care for the child. 

In addition to training, Diakon staff is always there to help throughout the process. On a weekly basis, case managers help families organize and manage all of a child’s medical needs.

Another avenue of encouragement comes through our support groups. On a monthly basis, Diakon offers families the opportunity to meet and share concerns and advice with one another. Families often discuss referrals, doctors, nurses and how to be a strong medical advocate. We often hear that support groups are a tremendous asset to our families.

The need for families is greater than ever …

There are not enough families to meet current needs.

Counties are scrambling to find foster families who can be a mentor to birth families—which is the primary goal. In fact, 10 to 15 percent of foster children have some sort of a medical need beyond everyday parenting. But fewer than 10 percent of families are willing to take a medically fragile child. We don’t see families coming forward in large numbers, but we do see the need growing more every day. 

I want to remind anyone thinking about foster care or adoption to look inside their heart. Every family who steps forward to care for a medically fragile child makes a lasting imprint on a child’s life. We are working hard to spread the word about this amazing program that serves special children with special needs.

Consumer Satisfaction – A few lessons learned….

Doing a survey always begins with a bit of trepidation. What will the responses be? Will there even be responses? If we receive responses, will they be good or bad?

At Diakon, however, we are committed to customer service and so we are always very willing to put aside those trepidations and ask: How are we doing?

Within Diakon Child, Family & Community Ministries, we recently conducted several satisfaction surveys of the organizations and individuals referring consumers to us for service. In addition, each year we conduct a retrospective review of all the consumer and referral source concerns we’ve received throughout the year.

I wanted to share some things with you that we have learned. First, the good news:

  • Quality – Across the board, those who refer to us believe that we offer quality care and services
  • Outcomes – Those who refer to us believe that our services produce good outcomes for the people we serve. In the last two years, we have increased our focus on sharing our outcomes data with the counties and agencies that refer to us, and they are increasingly aware of our outcomes as a result of our sharing data more publicly, such as on our website.
  • Staff qualifications – Our staff members are perceived as highly competent and qualified to do their jobs
  • Consistency of staffing – We are viewed as a stable, solid place to work
  • Communication – For the most part, we are seen as good communicators, following up with progress reports to our partners in the community and county agencies on those we serve for them.

Some areas for improvement also have been identified for a few programs, including:

  • Waits for service – In some of our programs, consumers and those who refer them believe that the wait for care can be lengthy at times. We have developed a plan to measure and improve this concern, particularly in Diakon Family Life Services’ SPIN program. We also are beginning a customer service training program that will help us all learn the “best practices” of expediting care and communicating with those we serve when there are unexpected delays.
  • Percentage of referrals accepted – The individuals and agencies that refer to us expect us to help those they refer, to say” yes” when they reach out to us for help. In a few programs, it can be challenging at times to meet the needs of the number of referrals made to us. We also have created a plan to measure and improve this percentage, particularly in our foster care services.

I extend a huge “thank you” to the people who took time to respond to our surveys, to our staff members and to all the county agencies with which we work—for all that you do to help the individuals and families we serve.

I deeply appreciate everyone’s hard work and dedication.

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