- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 14, 2001

There have been first ladies of fashion and first ladies of education. Rosalynn Carter may be the leading former first lady of health — and shes still going strong at age 73. Mrs. Carter will speak tomorrow evening at a weekend seminar labeled "Caring for the Caregiver," organized by the Smithsonian Associates at the S. Dillon Ripley Center. During part of the program, she will be interviewed by television reporter Cokie Roberts.

More and more people are having to look after sick or elderly family members. About 40 million people in the United States require help because of chronic conditions such as cancer or Alzheimer´s disease, and it´s estimated that about 80 percent to 90 percent of this care is provided by nonprofessionals, such as family members, friends and neighbors.

Taking care of someone who is chronically ill is a difficult task, and many people go into it unprepared and without the necessary support from the medical community, Mrs. Carter says.

"The first thing I think is to educate yourself," she says in a telephone interview. "Libraries and the Internet are good sources."

She also encourages people to press doctors and others in the medical profession — who generally devote little attention to those who are helping — for information on the loved one´s disease.

Once the caregiver knows how to deal with and treat the patient, she says, it´s time for him or her to start focusing on self.

Mrs. Carter says many helpers to whom she has talked say they feel lonely and frustrated — and if they feel bad, it´s likely they are not giving the best possible care to the patient.

"It´s so important for a caregiver to have a hobby," Mrs. Carter says. "It doesn´t have to be an expensive hobby. It can be taking pictures of flowers or gardening."

Joining a support group can be very helpful for anyone caring for the sick, and taking a break from someone´s sickbed is also important. "I tell all caregivers to take a break and not feel guilty about it," she says.

Mrs. Carter´s involvement in health care issues started officially in the 1960s, when she was on the Governor´s Commission to Improve Services for the Mentally and Emotionally Handicapped in Georgia. The governor, of course, was her husband, Jimmy.

It continued in the ´70s, when she served on the President´s Commission on Mental Health, and goes on today, at her Rosalynn Carter Institute for Human Development in Americus, Ga.

Mrs. Carter´s unofficial introduction to caring for others started much earlier, however. Her father died when she was 13, and her mother, Allie Murray Smith, was left with four young children.

"Being the oldest, my mother depended on me for the care of the other children," Mrs. Carter says. She took care of her younger siblings and helped her mother, a seamstress, with her sewing assignments.

She later had four children of her own and helped take care of ailing parents. When Mr. Carter´s mother, who died in 1988, needed help, the Carters hired help, which the older Mrs. Carter didn´t like.

"Old people don´t always admit they need help, and sometimes they turn against their caregivers," Mrs. Carter says. "Jimmy´s mother, for example, said she didn´t need some help we had hired, so she fired them," Mrs. Carter says.

Her wish for the future is that more hospitals, doctors and other health care providers will have services available for private helpers and that Carenet, a network of Georgia caregivers, will be mimicked elsewhere to include people from across the nation who can share information and concerns, provide educational programs and give support to one another.

Now, a final piece of advice, perhaps the most important, from Mrs. Carter: "Rely on a sense of humor. Try to smile every day."

Rosalynn Carter will speak at 6:30 p.m. tomorrow at the S. Dillon Ripley Center, 1100 Jefferson Drive SW, third floor. General admission is $20 for the lecture and $120 for the two-day seminar, which starts at 9:30 a.m. and ends about 4:30 p.m. Discounts are available for Smithsonian Associate members and seniors.

For more information, see www.ResidentAssociate.org or call 202/357-3030.

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