Sunday, May 19, 2024

Student creates peer support group for student caregivers

 

By Aleksandra Sidorova

In her final semester, a student started a support group she wished she had as a first-year.

Human development and family relations major Hannah Schmeelke knows firsthand the challenges of attending college while taking care of a relative with Alzheimer’s, dementia or other form of memory loss.

In her first year, Schmeelke had to balance two totally new experiences — college and caregiving. She found the responsibilities on both ends difficult to balance as she went home to Whitehall, New York, every weekend to care for her relative. 

Later on, Schmeelke learned about some of the support resources available on campus, but said she wishes she’d used them sooner.

“It was just really special to do something like this for students,” Schmeelke said. “That’s why I was so excited to start this, if I could help somebody else through it. I would have loved a group like this, you know?”

To form a group, Schmeelke, an intern at Student Support Services, reached out to Megan Monica, regional care manager for the Alzheimer’s Disease Caregiver Support Initiativel. Within a day or two after meeting, Schmeelke and Monica decided on a schedule for the peer support group to meet.

“We thought, let’s start up with students being able to talk to other students because their journey in caregiving is going to look much different than a wife at age 65 going through caregiving,” Monica said.

Ashley Durocher, associate director of Student Support Services and adviser to the Student Mental Health Initiative, said eight to 10 students of her caseload of 100 are caregivers for family members with memory loss, which made it harder to adjust to a college environment.

“They were noticing the changes and not really feeling like it was something that’s openly talked about on campus, or just in general with their friends and peers,” Durocher said.

Durocher and Schmeelke were both caregivers in college, so the support group is a “passion project” for them, Schmeelke said. Student caregivers might have to call the family member, send them reminders and help them cook or clean on top of balancing academics, work and a social life, Monica said.

“That’s a lot of pressure on its own, and not having an outlet if you’re struggling with this back at home can probably make it feel like your world is getting pretty small or pretty overloaded,” Monica said.

The meetings aim to provide an environment to freely chat with peers with similar experiences. Schmeelke or Monica also attend and can help start, guide or redirect conversations.

“I don’t put the pressure on people of ‘Let’s go around the room introducing yourself’ — that type of setting, because not everybody feels comfortable sharing,” Monica said. “Some people come to listen because that’s what they’re comfortable with at this time, and that’s fine, too.”

Snacks, such as chips, are also available, along with a goodie bag featuring brochures with support resources, materials containing general information about memory loss and care and activities both the caregiver and care recipient can enjoy, including a coloring book and a recipe book.

“I think this was a really cool packet to get,” Schmeelke said.

A successful Young Caregiver Support Group would create a network of student caregivers by connecting them to each other directly. No students have come to the meetings so far.

“I think it’s going to connect them with others on campus kind of going through the same things that they are, which is oh so great, because can I share two people’s phone numbers? Absolutely not, but if they meet up naturally at support group and end up exchanging information so they can talk more … they can talk through that together,” Monica said.

The Young Caregiver Support Group meets at noon the fourth Wednesday of every month. 

Its next meeting is April 24 in Sibley 514, located in the Center for Neurobehavioral Health and Science, which can be accessed only from the outside, through the door on the back of the building, closest to Plattsburgh High School.

Students can also attend general meetings and events held regularly at various locations in the six counties the Alzheimer’s Disease Caregiver Support Initiative serves. All meetings and events are free. Learn more at wehelpcaregivers.com

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