A community initiative has shown the benefits that can flow when carers take time off to look after their own health, Tim Henwood, Alice Gregory and Molly Dumican write.
Family caregivers offer the opportunity for individuals with physical and/or cognitive disabilities to remain in the home and provide these individuals a personal level of support not found in formal care relationships.
However, the caring role can have significant physical and cognitive health implications that can impact their ability to provide care.
Opportunities for these individuals to access exercise facilities and programs is often limited due to time constraints, financial burden, access to respite care and a decline in physical health.
However, when these barriers can be overcome significant benefits will follow, as shown by a recent Southern Cross Care (SA & NT) (SCC) community health and wellness initiative.
Carer-specific exercise opportunities
Regular physical activity, particularly progressive resistance and balance training, is known to provide important benefits to physical and cognitive health, regardless of disease, age and disability.
Introducing resistance training to the family caregiver population can offset the health implications experienced in their role and increase their capacity to maintain in-home caring.
Moreover, in addition to this, research has shown that exercise for this group can increase mental health and wellbeing as well as balance and leg strength.
Identifying the need for a carer-specific exercise opportunities, SCC in partnership with Carers SA established the Caring for the Carer program.
Funded by a small SCC Foundation grant, Caring for the Carer was developed as a 10 week exercise program, attended twice weekly at SCC’s Philip Kennedy Centre in Largs Bay, SA, using the existing format for Stronger Today classes.
Stronger Today is a strength, condition and balance program based upon current evidence, delivered using HUR equipment and supervised by an Accredited Exercise Physiologist (AEP).
In addition to the physical and cognitive benefits to participants, the program looked to strengthen relationships between SCC and Carers SA, and to support future program participation by other carers.
Benefits all round
Participants completed the seniors fitness test before and after undergoing the training period, to measure improvements in upper and lower body strength as well as complex function and balance.
They were also required to complete the geriatric depression scale, the geriatric anxiety inventory and the WHO-QoL questionnaire to measure changes in their symptoms of depression and anxiety as well as overall quality of life.
The results indicated positive increases in upper and lower body strength and perceived quality of life, as well as significant reductions in symptoms of depression.
For many carers, taking time out for themselves often leads to feeling guilty which can isolate them and may deter them from participating in organised physical and social activity.
Testimonials from carers in the SCC study suggested that participating in the Stronger Today program enabled them to be more mentally prepared for their role as a carer as well as allowing them to ‘learn to appreciate’ themselves.
Furthermore, the carers enjoyed that they were able to participate in the class with other carers and looked forward to the social aspect of a coffee and chat after each class.
Additionally, the carers who participated also found performing daily tasks such as putting on their socks or doing housework much easier and more enjoyable.
As would be expected when commencing anything new, initial participation required extensive support, guidance and motivation from the supervising AEP team, but as carers became accustom to the exercises, machines, each other their independence increased.
Barriers to participation identified by the carers included the cost and timing of the sessions.
Offering classes at a variety of time throughout the week will increase adherence and looking for ways of supported participation or maintaining a low session cost will benefit sustainability, as well as creating opportunities for partnerships with other external providers in the aged care sector as the program gains traction.
With a growing trend for more of the over-50s to get involved in exercise for preventative benefits, and with an increased understanding of the value of the carer and the importance of the physical and mental health, SCC intends to extend the Caring for the Carer program at their new Carmelite site.
This will offer carers an increased opportunity to engage at a location more convenient to them. Carers offer a valuable service to our ever-ageing population and need to be supported with appropriate opportunities to better manage their own health.
The Caring for the Carers program offers that opportunity tailored specifically to the needs of a full time carer and gives us an opportunity to care for those who care the most.
Dr Tim Henwood is Group Manager at Southern Cross Care and Alice Gregory and Molly Dumican are Accredited Exercise Physiology honours students at the University of South Australia.
Are you a carer? Do you have enough time to look after your health needs? Have your say in the comments section below.