About 15 years ago, Lori Ramos Lemasters got a phone call in the middle of the night. Her mother, who lived in California, had suffered a stroke.
At the time, her mother was her dad's primary caregiver - he had medical problems. So Lemasters made a choice. She left her job as a mortgage banker in Littleton and moved to California. She thought it would be a quick trip.
Even though the doctors said her mother's condition was serious, Lemasters thought "she'd be on her feet in a year and we'd go back to living as usual."
That wasn't how it worked. Two and a half years in, after her father had died, she moved her mom back to Littleton, Colorado.
"And eight years later she passed away," said Lemasters.
That eight years of giving her mom blood-thinning shots, transporting her to the doctor, struggling with exhaustion — but grateful for each day — changed how Lemasters thinks about caregiving. Now she's in the business of helping other caregivers get more support. She's focusing on Denver's Latino population.
Nationally, the statistics show that Latinos are more likely to care for elders in the home. A 2008 study [.pdf] from United Health and the National Caregiving Alliance found that 43 percent of Latinos are likely to live with the loved ones they care for, compared with 32 percent non-Latinos.
This is generally a positive. Long term care facilities are expensive, and if elders have to go on Medicaid, care for them becomes expensive. Most aging adults also say they prefer to stay with families or in their homes.
When families offer care, though, there are still plenty of hardships. Caregiving for elders is stressful and time consuming. Focus groups Lemasters conducted in the Denver area reported feeling exhausted and struggling with transportation and accessing services.
Jayla Sanchez-Warren, head of the Area Agency on Aging for the Denver Regional Council of Governments, agrees this is an issue. By 2047, nearly half the state's population over 60 will be Latino. That's why it's important to support the families that are caring for those elders.
"We've recently started a Latino outreach program and a case management program here, to really try and understand how to serve that population better," she said.
It's not just hiring bilingual employees and translating existing materials, although Sanchez-Warren has recently hired staff to do that too. It's acknowledging that the Latino community — and other culturally distinct communities — may not best be served by the status quo.
For example, if families and elders are uncomfortable with in-home visits, are there other ways to offer them respite care or support? Sanchez-Warren gives herself as an example: She'd be uncomfortable having someone come clean her dad's house, but "you're more than welcome to come clean mine." By helping her, she has more time and energy to help her aging father.
"You can help support me as a person supporting him in different ways," she added.
Many caregivers say they are glad they can offer care for family members. Take the Jimenez family. They live in a quiet neighborhood in Longmont. Maribel Jimenez works as a medical translator. Her mom, Juana de Dios Jimenez, lives with her, as does her 88-year-old grandmother, Pascuala Borrego.
Although they share duties, Juana de Dios Jimenez does much of the caregiving for her aging mother. She makes her food, bathes and dresses her, combs her hair, and helps her move outdoors and inside.
De Dios Jimenez tears up when asked what this means to her. She says it means "everything, to be with my mother right now. I care for her so much and I help her any way I can."
While families like the Jimenez' say they are doing well now, as more and more families care for more and more aging adults, it's likely some of them will need support. When Lori Ramos Lemasters conducted her focus groups, one of the biggest issues she found was caregivers did not take advantage of, or felt guilty taking advantage of respite care.
Lemasters will soon be using what she's learned through research and an earlier pilot project to try a new demonstration project with Denver-area Latino caregiving families. For her, in order for support systems to work, caregivers must be included from the start. Otherwise, the Latino population will continue to be underserved.