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Teaching Caregivers to Also Care for Themselves

More than 34 million Americans provided unpaid care to a loved one in 2015, numbers that are likely to grow as the baby boomers age.

More than 34 million Americans provided unpaid care to a loved one in 2015, numbers that are likely to grow as the baby boomers age. Shutterstock

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Connecting state and local government leaders

A stress-busting course for caregivers offered by a New Jersey county aims to counteract the negative physical and emotional effects that come with providing support for a loved one.

This fall in Morris County, New Jersey, small groups of residents will gather to learn new ways to combat stress—activities like journaling, positive thinking, relaxation breathing and meditation. The nine-week “stress-busting” course was developed by researchers and is offered for free, but only to one very specific, fast-growing population: caregivers.

“We have seen an increase in the amount of caregivers in our county, and the role has sort of transformed,” said Shawnna Bailey, administrative supervisor of social work for Morris County’s Office on Aging, Disabilities and Community Programming. “There’s a large push for people to be able to age at home, to not have them in facilities prematurely—but that puts a lot of burden on caregivers. We have definitely seen it in our outreach.”

Caregivers, who provide full- or part-time support to a loved one with a chronic or debilitating condition, are a large but typically unseen population across the country. More than 34 million Americans provided unpaid care to an adult over the age of 50 in 2015, while 43.5 million provided unpaid care to an adult or child, according to a survey conducted by the National Alliance for Caregiving and the AARP. The immense responsibility of full-time caregiving comes with a host of negative psychological and physical side effects, including depression, isolation, chronic stress and increased risk of high blood pressure, diabetes and other chronic illnesses.

“A lot of times what happens is they’re so wrapped up in caring for others, they neglect themselves,” Bailey said. “With the stress-busting program, we want to show them how they can take small steps to provide for their own self-care.”

The curriculum, developed by researchers at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, pairs two trained facilitators with groups of no more than eight caregivers for weekly 90-minute sessions for nine weeks. Each session focuses on a different topic (positive thinking, coping with stress, self-care, relaxation) and teaches different tactics to help relieve physical and emotional duress (hand massage, art, aromatherapy, music). Participants will receive take-home materials (a workbook, a meditation CD) to help continue their de-stressing practices after the program ends, and will have the option of remaining in contact with their course facilitators and, if they wish, their classmates.

The course has been used in at least 10 states, including Texas, where it’s included as a caregiver resource in the state plan on Alzheimer’s disease. A pilot study in south Texas found that program participants had “significant decreases” in perceived stress, depression, caregiver burden, anxiety and anger, along with improvements in general health, vitality, social function and mental health scores. Those results were still present four months after the program’s completion.

Morris County sent four staff members to train as facilitators and will hold two concurrent courses—a morning session and an evening class—beginning in mid-September. The class is funded through the federal Older Americans Act and is free for county residents who care for someone over the age of 60, or someone younger than 60 who has been diagnosed with early-onset progressive dementia. But Bailey is hopeful that the county can expand the course for a broader array of caregivers in the future.

“We’d like to expand it to accommodate all caregivers, regardless of the age of the recipient,” she said. “We’re hoping it’s going to help them to be able to manage their stress and to better cope with the role they find themselves in and the challenges they experience.”

Kate Elizabeth Queram is a Staff Correspondent for Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.

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