James Madison University

Caregivers Receive Some TLC from JMU Students

By: Vilina Phan
Posted: April 12, 2013

PHOTO: JMU Students with client

Many times, caregivers of the elderly are underappreciated and overlooked. Often simple day-to-day activities can bring about emotional stress. Merle Mast, founder and executive director of the Caregivers Community Network (CCN) and Stacy Hansen the new program director hope to bring awareness to their plight.

CCN is a program that supports families who care for seniors. The specific services offered include in-home respite and companion care, follow up phone calls and support between visits, errand running, links to other community services, access to toll-free helpline, and educational opportunities.

The program was established in 2001, following Mast’s research that found that caregivers have a strong need for emotional support, information, and in-home respite and companion care. As founder and executive director, Mast’s role is threefold: to offer an elective service learning course that allows students to receive training and work with families, to provide respite and companion service as well as give oversight and assistance with the strategic planning of the program, and to write grant proposals to fund CCN and its initiatives.  

Hansen has been an advocate of the program since the beginning. “While working as a case manager with VPAS [Valley Program for Aging Services] my office was right next door to CCN when they were awarded their grant.  Numerous clients of mine were caregivers that needed respite, so I was referring folks to CCN... I always felt CCN provided a needed and worthwhile service to the community,” said Hansen.

PHOTO: JMU Students do craftsThe program is made up of JMU students across all majors as well as other community members. Students earn course credit by enrolling in NSG 313, “Issues and Applications in Family Caregiving,” a service learning course in which they are trained to provide respite and companion care services to caregiving families.

“I have learned a lot from this program. The elderly are quite a challenging group to work with but I found that patience and communication are key. This program has opened my eyes to what it means to give respite care and how important it is to informal caregivers who devote their lives to these loved family members because they have no other options,” said Jennifer McCue, junior Health Sciences major.

Assigning students to a care recipient is Hansen’s responsibility. Student volunteers provide two to four hours of respite and companion care per week. Activities vary depending on the interest of the older adults and their families and the students, but can range from arts and crafts, to shopping trips, to writing letters to family and friends.

“I am an extra set of eyes and ears for Mr. Sullivan while he gets work done around the house and a source of entertainment for Mrs. Dee. I have given her a manicure, sung with her, done puzzles with her, flipped through photo albums, read to her, and simply held her hand,” said Moriah Brillhart, freshman Nursing major.

CCN has been in operation for over a decade and has been recognized state-wide and nationally. But for everyone involved, the true reward comes from the appreciation of the families helped.

“The most rewarding part is seeing Mrs. Harris smile and perk up every time we walk into the room and she knows it’s time to play [games]. Besides church on Sunday she has no real contact with others. When she gets excited about our activities and tells us exactly what she wants, I know she is happy and that is for sure the most rewarding part for me, just making an impact in her life,” said McCue.

“The families receiving respite are very appreciative and form a strong relationship with the JMU students.  JMU students learn how rewarding and difficult it can be as a caregiver, and become very attached.  It is a win-win for everyone,” said Hansen.