Caregiver support groups offer comfort, connection to faculty and staff

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Web 8

Being a caregiver can be a lonely and hard experience, as those who have had to step into that role can attest.

“It can be overwhelming at times,” says Kim Miller, staff assistant in the Division of Student Affairs. “We don’t talk about these challenges at work because, quite frankly, most people do not want to hear about our problems. 

“Well, our group does want to listen and help if we can,” she says.

Miller is one of the coordinators for the staff caregivers support group, a monthly meeting of University staff who are also caregivers for loved ones, including a spouse, child, parent or friend.

“I saw a notice in TheWeek@ND regarding a support group for faculty members who are caregivers,” Miller remembers. “I reached out to the facilitator [Rev. Frank Murphy, C.S.C., faculty chaplain] to see if staff could attend. And, although staff was welcome, the group was already quite large so I reached out to Father Bracke about starting a group for staff.”

Web 8Rev. Jim Bracke, C.S.C., staff chaplain, leads introductions at the August staff caregivers support group. At left is Beth Ferlic, care and wellness consultant in student affairs and a leader of the group. At right is Jenn Lechtanski, graphic designer in the Keough School of Global Affairs. Top photo: Christal Colbert, an officer assistant in the Graduate School, middle, talks to the August caregivers support group. (Photos by Barbara Johnston/University of Notre Dame)

Rev. Jim Bracke, C.S.C., staff chaplain, thought it was a great idea and got the staff counterpart up and running about a year ago. The staff group meets from noon to 1 p.m. on the first Thursday of every month except January and July. The meetings are commitment-free — Father Bracke encourages anyone who’s interested to stop by and see what they think.

“I think it’s really wonderful because so many people are busy and to go to another off-site meeting, maybe caregivers are not able to do that given their responsibilities at home with their families, etc. So this provides something while they're at work to do that,” Father Bracke says.

“I think it’s important the way that we, as Notre Dame, speak about the family and support of each other in that way,” Father Bracke continues. “We make this effort to help people in a vulnerable time when they’re trying to care for their aging parents or for their special needs child or for a spouse who’s ill or in need, and still working full time, still carrying on many responsibilities. We allow them a space where they can share and be open.”

The meetings, which are open to staff of all faiths, usually begin with a short prayer and a check-in. Father Bracke emphasizes that privacy and support are key components of the group.

“If people don’t have anything to say, they can just pass,” he says. “There’s never any obligation for people that they have to talk. I think sometimes people feel like they don’t want to join a support group because they don’t feel like they have things to share, or they’re hesitant or they’re shy. And that’s OK.”

Miller finds a lot of comfort in the support group. “I appreciate that I can connect with others like myself who experience the daily challenges of being the primary caregiver,” she says. “I appreciate suggestions that come from experience, sharing of valid information, and the heartfelt compassion the group provides.” She’s also seen friendships bud among group members.

During some meetings, the leaders arrange for a representative from places such as REAL Services or hospice care to come in and talk to the members. They even had a Notre Dame law professor, Michael Jenuwine, come in to talk about issues of guardianship.

Miller, who’s part of the group leadership along with Beth Ferlic, care and wellness consultant, and Brother Chris Dreyer, invites all caregivers on campus to visit the group.

“I would like people to know that if they are a caregiver, whether it be for a spouse, aging parents, disabled child or friend, they are not alone,” she says. “Our group is very laid-back. You don’t have to talk if you don’t want to, but you just might take something away that will make you feel better.”

She encourages anyone with questions to get in touch with her directly at kmille29@nd.edu or 631-4073.