COMPANIONS on your cancer journey

By Elayne Smith Lowe • Photos by: Gabriela Campos

Local program matches former, current caregivers for support

Mary Ann Aragon is more than familiar with the turmoil, mess and beauty of helping a loved one with cancer.

She knows all too well the 2 a.m. moments when everything goes wrong and simple needs become huge undertakings. Or the times when there aren’t any words for the intangible weight of the tangible burdens. Or the silences when all she could do was hold her loved one and whisper, “I know.”

The Albuquerque resident cared for her husband from the time he was diagnosed with prostate cancer until his death. Before his diagnosis, Aragon — a cancer survivor herself — had been a caretaker for her aging mother for several years.

“I know what it feels like to be on both sides,” Aragon said. “As scary as cancer is, the caregiving side is even harder. You want to fix the problem but you don’t have all the answers.”

According to “Caregiving in the United States 2020,” a report from the National Alliance for Caregiving and AARP, more than one in five Americans — 21.3 percent — report that they provided care to an adult or child with special needs at some time in the past year.

“The best gift you can give yourself is to reach out for that empathetic connection of someone who understands,” Aragon said. “I’ve been blessed to be a caregiver, and so many people have been there to support me through it.”

A lot of Aragon’s support came from the Caregiver Support Program offered by Cancer Services of New Mexico. The nonprofit started pairing caregivers with volunteers across New Mexico in 2013, after identifying an unmet need for caregivers. The volunteers are former caregivers who offer support to their matches by listening and commiserating.

“People need to be heard and feel some relief from what’s a really high-pressure situation at times,” said John Trotter, the volunteer coordinator for the Caregiver Support Program.

Trotter was also Aragon’s match. Starting in April 2019, Trotter and Aragon met at a Starbucks every week for about a year. For an hour, the two discussed whatever Aragon was going through over coffee, from caregiving details to emotional reckonings.

“We would talk about whatever she wanted,” Trotter said. “When she described complicated and difficult-to-manage situations, it didn’t take me by surprise. There’s a particular bond formed by these shared experiences.”

“There was just that connection of ‘Yeah, I get what you feel,’” Aragon said. Engaging with John was “a lifeline to renewal,” she said, that made her feel less alone and more understood. “Everybody has their comfort zone,” she added, “and John was my comfort zone. I could let out my frustrations and I could cry. I could smile. I could laugh.”

The Caregiver Support Program doesn’t have a set schedule or duration, enabling a flexible relationship between the caregiver and volunteer. Whether meeting for coffee or talking on the phone for 15 minutes or an hour, the program is tailored to each individual’s needs.

“We don’t ask the volunteer to become personal friends, but we also don’t have a professional ethic to leave a distance,” Trotter said. “You get to say things that maybe you would or wouldn’t say to a close friend.”

Judith Harris is another volunteer with the Caregiver Support Program. She said she’s always been interested in caregiving and witnessed it in her job as a nurse practitioner.

“They’re providing an essential service,” Harris said. “It’s really important for people providing caregiving to get support.”

Another Albuquerque resident who has lost family to cancer, Harris said she tries to listen to her matches’ experiences and empathize. She focuses on active listening and ensures the caregiver can access any needed resources.

“The pain of just seeing someone dying isn’t an easy thing to see,” Harris said. “So to have someone to talk to about it, it’s a way for people to express their emotions and that’s really helpful and important.”

Aragon said she is grateful New Mexico Cancer Services offers support for caregivers. Her time meeting with John was a much needed break that made her feel normal, she said — like anyone else meeting up for coffee.

“Life changes in a heartbeat, and you just need to reach out to someone unbiased who knows what you’re going through,” Aragon said. “It’s not that any of us caregivers have answers, but we have our experiences.”

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