Just what the Doctor Ordered
A day of rest, relaxation and camaraderie
A group of men and women stood in a circle on the lawn outside the Frost Valley Castle, holding one another’s hands and expressing what they were thankful for. Among the group, one woman stood next to her spouse and began to cry. Through her tears, she shared with the group that she was thankful for the opportunity to finally meet people who knew what it was like to walk in her shoes. From the empathetic looks on their faces and the tears rolling down their cheeks, the other participants clearly felt the same way. Caring for a loved one whose health is declining is a painful, arduous task. While supporting someone you love can be rewarding, it can also be stressful and oftentimes heart wrenching to watch someone decline.
In 2011, the Caregiver Resource Center of Sullivan County, a co-partnership of Cornell Cooperative Extension and the Office for the Aging in Sullivan County, created the Caregiver Wellness Retreat, a special day dedicated to family members who support loved ones with Alzheimer’s and related dementia. Although providing knowledge and resources is important, the program administrators knew offering the opportunity to relax and recharge with a wellness retreat focused solely on them was just as crucial. After holding the first retreat at a public park, Bonnie Lewis, RN and dependent care educator at Cornell Cooperative Extension, realized, “We needed a location close to Sullivan County where we would have the latitude to be creative, as well as have access to a top notch facility.” June 2017 was the sixth year the Annual Caregiver Wellness Retreat was held at Frost Valley.
Each year, the retreat begins with an opening ceremony, reminding the participants that the day is for them, a rare occurrence for families in their situation. Throughout the day, caregivers and volunteers enjoy volunteer-led activities such as music therapy, massages, art exploration, a traditional campfire with s’mores, and a visit to Frost Valley’s nature room. Teens from a local 4-H Club volunteered for the day, including Rebecca Coombe who brought her bunny to participate in pet therapy, while others assisted with therapeutic coloring and felting. The caregivers benefit from a day of self-care and the time to relax and unwind, which is so vital because witnessing a loved one drift away can be extremely stressful and emotionally demanding.
Over the years, the retreat continues to evolve and expand, with attendance and support increasing. The success of the retreat, made possible in part through the Alzheimer’s Association, has led to other counties in the area holding retreats as well. Bonnie is proud “other counties are benefiting from what we are creating here at Frost Valley and in Sullivan County.” Caregivers and their loved ones leave the retreat better than when they came. The activities they participate in and the camaraderie that surrounds them at Frost Valley give them inspiration to persevere.
When leaving the retreat, an 80 year-old couple, Betty and Henry, sat on the bus heading home, talking about their day. Bonnie said it looked as if they were two cabin mates comparing notes on all they had done at summer camp. The retreat put a twinkle back in their eyes, and that is exactly what Bonnie was hoping for when planning it.
Witnessing moments like this is Bonnie’s reward. “When I have my nurse hat on, I leave work, go home, and I am done. Families caring for someone with Alzheimer’s do not have that luxury,” Bonnie explained. “Sometimes, all you need is a shoulder to lean on, and that’s what we are doing with the retreat. We are giving them a shoulder.”