Family members who care for loved ones with mental or physical disabilities are at risk for increased stress, which can affect not only their health but also the health of the person in their charge. Often, these individuals must balance care with work and other family commitments, leaving little time to attend to their own health and wellbeing.
George Brice of Willingboro, New Jersey, began experiencing from “compassion fatigue” and depression after his father passed away last year, leaving him as the sole caregiver for his sister who lives with schizoaffective disorder. Knowing he had to learn stress-management strategies, he enrolled in Rutgers’ new Caregiver Wellness program, which provides research-based wellness self-care education, yoga and mindfulness meditation to family and professional caregivers of adults with co-occurring developmental disabilities and mental illness.
After the class, Brice found relief by integrating meditation and yoga into his daily routine and enlisting the help of neighbors when he needed a break from caregiving — but he discovered that was not the only benefit. “My yoga practice captivated my sister’s interest, and a few weeks after I started going to classes at a local studio, she asked to join me,” he said. “Now, we go together, and she is managing her stress better, too.”
A collaboration between Rutgers University Behavioral Health Care (UBHC) and Rutgers School of Health Professions, the Caregiver Wellness program was funded by the New Jersey Division of Mental Health and Addiction Services and the Mental Health Services Administration of the United States Department of Health and Human Services.
“Caregiving is a relentless, 24/7 role that requires emotional and physical strength. People often neglect their own health, focusing exclusively on the needs of those whom they support, which can lead to self-destructive patterns and social isolation,” said project manager Margaret Swarbrick, UBHC director of practice innovation and wellness. “Caregivers can easily get overwhelmed and neglect their own self-care needs.”
While developing the program, Swarbrick surveyed many family supporters connected to the Mom2Mom peer support line for parents of children with special needs, the New Jersey chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness and others in the developmental disability communities. They conducted focus groups and researched similar educational initiatives across the nation and discovered a lack of programs that teach self-care skills to caregivers of adults with disabilities. “Although there were other programs that taught yoga and mindfulness, we did not find any that included the critical component of wellness self-care education, as our program does,” Swarbrick said.
The program takes a practical, not theoretical, approach: Caregivers learn hands-on how even a few minutes of simple yoga, meditation and breathing exercises during the day can reduce stress. “For example, we show them how closing their eyes for even a few minutes can have a profound effect on stress levels and how, with a little planning, they can eat nutritiously and not resort to grabbing food on the go,” Swarbrick said. “The yoga and meditation teaches them how to pause and roll with situations rather than react to them, which leads to more effective caregiving.”