There are more than 40 million unpaid caregivers in the United States, according to the Pew Research Center. Of those, nine out of 10 are caring for an aging relative.
Caring for a relative, friend or neighbor can be taxing, with tasks ranging from performing household duties, to helping with bathing, dressing and eating, to more complicated medical responsibilities, such as managing medications or giving injections. Dementia or other mental health issues on the part of the care recipient can present additional challenges.
It’s no wonder that many caregivers suffer from stress.
The Jewish Association on Aging has partnered with the nonprofit Hope Grows in an effort to teach caregivers techniques for self-care. The program, called Caregiver Connect, launched its newest iteration last fall, and so far is providing services to two caregivers tending to Charles Morris Nursing & Rehabilitation Center patients who were recently discharged from its facility. The program has received grant funding from the Staunton Farm Foundation. Caregiver Connect provides the caregiver with a counselor who demonstrates stress management techniques, according to Lisa Story, founder and executive director of Hope Grows. The counselor will meet with the caregiver three times throughout the year to monitor stress reduction.
“We are going to help them become mindfully aware of their emotions so that they can then better cope with their caregiving situation,” Story said.
The program is part of a research effort of Chatham University, intended to identify and measure the impact on reducing caregiver stress to the caregivers themselves, and also to see if it affects the rate of hospital readmissions for the recipients of the care, according to Story.
Story founded Hope Grows several years ago, after dealing with her own grief following the death of her father. A mental health counselor, she was inspired to find a way to help the caregiving community in Pittsburgh.
“I researched the needs of Pittsburgh and realized that there was a need for caregiver support,” Story said. “At first I thought I was going to do something with grief and bereavement, but it really kind of morphed into this nonprofit for providing family caregivers emotional and mental health and wellbeing.”
Hope Grows aims to “cultivate caregiver wellness,” she said. The organization provides mental health counseling, support groups, and psychoeducation to caregivers, taking a holistic approach grounded in nature.
“Our core value here is that nature is therapeutic and connecting people to plants and nature is healing,” said Story, who has a certificate in horticulture in addition to her counseling credentials.
“So, almost every piece of our programming entails some type of interaction, whether it be active or passive, with the use of horticulture or nature.”
Some caregivers can be reluctant to commit to a program focused on self-care, noted Anne-Marie Hanzes, the Caregiver Connect manager at the JAA. In a previous iteration of the program, caregivers were offered the services through written materials, and only a few signed on. Now, Hanzes’ job is to reach out personally to caregivers to share information about Caregiver Connect and actively encourage them to participate.
“I look at discharge planning and I meet with the social work director and we go over potential caregivers who we are noticing are having some strain and distress, challenges, with being that primary caregiver,” Hanzes explained.
If the caregiver is interested in participating in the program, which is free of charge, a wellness mentor is introduced who provides training in stress management techniques.
The relationships begin with the caregivers sharing their stories.
“They are able to talk about their experiences and begin to think about their emotions,” said Phyllis Rupert, wellness mentor for Caregiver Connect.
Once the caregivers begin to talk, they can start to “recognize some of the emotions that they’re having, some of the ways that they’re dealing with things, and then begin to recognize some of the stress that they’re really under,” Rupert said. Therapy techniques are then offered.
Although since the fall of 2019 just two caregivers have joined the program, Hanzes said Caregiver Connect hopes to add between five and 10 new participants a month.
“It’s been a slow climb because not everyone is aware of it, and even educating the staff is something we still have to do,” Hanzes said.
And there has been some resistance from the caregivers as well.
“They don’t have the time, or say that everything’s good for now,” she said. “But I think once people know about it and they are more comfortable with what the program can provide, I think it’s going to take off because I think it’s a needed service for sure.” pjc
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at