It is afternoon as about 35 men and women gather in the large, sunny fellowship hall at Trinity Ecumenical Parish in Moneta, a small town near Smith Mountain Lake. Group members chat companionably as the fourth workshop of Support U gets under way.
Led by Mary Lou Blevins, a program developer for Lutheran Family Services, the six-session workshop covers key caregiving issues: the need to plan ahead, how to track down resources, the importance of self-care, financial and legal planning; and perhaps the most difficult of all — navigating the family dynamics of chronic illness and its effect on family.
“The stress of caregiving can prevent caregivers from keeping up with their own health needs,” Blevins says. “The idea of Support U is to help people prepare for the role of caregiver and to help current caregivers avoid isolation and burnout.”
Their stories may all be different, but get a group of caregivers together and there is an instant bond formed of loss, experience, and empathy, says Blevins.
“It helps to be around people who are walking your path because they have lived it and understand,” says Blevins.
Blevins starts the class with a recap of what she has learned about new technology that will help caregivers – GPS-embedded sneakers that keep track of loved ones, t-shirts that measure vital signs, and shoe inserts that monitor balance. Then she launches into the day’s lesson – family dynamics and communication. During a lively interchange, the group’s consensus emerges — all norms are suspended once a caregiving arrangement begins, which makes communication difficult.
“There are very hard conversations that we have to have with our loved ones, and family dynamics can make them even harder,” says Blevins. “What are your end-of-life wishes? What kind of funeral do you want? This is not easy stuff.”
Near the end of the class, the conversation turns to the difficulty of keeping body and spirit together. One workshop member, who is caring for a son recovering from a brain tumor as well as for her husband and in-laws, talks about the difficulty of maintaining a balanced life. When she says, “Caregiving is a marathon, not a sprint,” there are murmurs of agreement.
“The class discussion is really meaningful because you realize that you are far from alone in the universe of caregivers,: says Vickie Millar, who became a caregiver partner with her father when her mother became ill. “We both learned as we went along, and we had each other to lean on when times were especially difficult. When that time comes for my Dad, I want to be a prepared as possible.” Millar’s mother died at age 82 in 2012
“People who take part in caregiver support workshops like Support U find better ways to cope as well as resources that help alleviate some of the stress of caregiving,” says Blevins. “And, they receive the benefit of the group’s wisdom and validation.”
Support U is part of the Lutheran Services in America Caregiver Suite, and is targeted primarily to caregivers of seniors over age 50. To find out more about bringing Support U to your congregation or business, call Mary Lou Blevins at 540.774.7100 or email her at email@example.com. For a schedule of upcoming Support U workshops, visit lfsva.org.
Caption: Vickie Millar and her mother