by Barbara Sherf
Chestnut Hill resident Pam Learned, who is caring for her husband with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease), now knows that to care for him she must care for herself.
Learned took away that lesson a year ago during a three-day, two-night retreat given by Nancy’s House, a non-profit organization in nearby Wyncote that offers caregivers a place to take care of themselves, connect with other caregivers and “just be” without worrying about caring for a loved one.
“I had been caregiving full-time for two and a half years without a break. Through Nancy’s House I learned to take time for myself and to relax and breath throughout the day,” said Learned, who now keeps in touch with others who had been to the retreat via e-mail. “Even though we don’t meet in person, these women help me stay connected.”
Elissa Lewin, founder and president of Nancy’s House, loves all aspects of her role — with one exception. “The hardest part of my job and the part I hate is telling a caregiver that I have to put them on a waiting list. We can only run the respite retreats as I have money for them,” said Lewin, who came up with the concept for Nancy’s House following her own experience while caring for her father-in-law for five years. He had suffered from diabetes, Parkinson’s, heart failure “and just enough dementia to make life interesting.
“It really wasn’t until the day after he died that I realized I hadn’t been sleeping well for five years. I had a conversation about this with my massage therapist, Nancy Brown, and that’s when the seed for Nancy’s House was planted.”
The eight-year-old organization is based out of her Wyncote home, although she has barely been there lately since November is National Caregivers Awareness Month.
“We are always on a fundraising campaign. Our first grant was from the Greentree Foundation. We’ve also received grants from the Tackle ALS Foundation, and recently we were awarded a $10,000 grant from the Phillies Charities. However, individual fundraising is just as important in terms of raising awareness about what we do,” she noted while manning a table during a recent fundraiser at Ten Thousand Villages in Chestnut Hill.
As a licensed psychologist, Lewin facilitates sessions in which eight caregivers are given the luxury of sleeping through the night for two straight nights, yoga and meditation classes during the day and three healthy meals a day. Each retreat costs approximately $7,500 to run, and the past several have been held at the ACE Conference Center in Lafayette Hill.
“The front desk staff greet us with hugs. I think they do so much corporate work that it makes them feel that this is something worthwhile.”
With a dozen retreats under her belt, Lewin is recognizing a pattern among the participants in the sessions. “There is a lot of crying the first night and a lot of laughing the second night. Caregivers need to let go that first night and get a good night’s sleep if they can, and many can’t do it that first night. On the second day they find their joy and find themselves again, and they usually sleep well the second night,” Lewin added.
Germantown resident Peter Solomon, Nancy’s House Board president, was on hand at the Ten Thousand Villages fundraiser, which he organized along with another event earlier in the month at the Trolley Car Diner in Mt. Airy. Solomon, who did some caregiving for his late mother and aunt, was introduced to the organization through his role hosting a public affairs program on Sunday mornings on WIP 610 AM.
Board members Colin Robinson and Jim Vokoun, who have seen a number of their friends take care of partners with AIDS, embraced the concept of Nancy’s House from the moment they heard about it.
“In our own experience when Colin was a caregiver for me, something like Nancy’s House would have given him the tools to cope, and it would have been something to look forward to in terms of getting away,” said Vokoun, who underwent cancer treatments from 2008-2010.
Chestnut Hill resident Stewart Graham is on Nancy’s House advisory board due to his firsthand experience as a caregiver for his mother for a decade before she passed away.
“The last year was the most difficult, and I know I would have benefited from an organization like Nancy’s House. While I had a lot of help from family and friends, I was the primary caregiver coordinating her care, and I would have benefited from some of the stress reduction techniques,” said Graham, who was instrumental in getting a City Council proclamation passed in November recognizing Nancy’s House for its efforts during National Caregivers Awareness Month.
“I’m happy to be able to shine a light on an issue that will only grow in the coming decade. It’s nice to know there are places like Nancy’s House that are there to help,” said Graham.
Two area fundraisers will be held next week for Nancy’s House: Tuesday, Dec. 4, 5 to 7:30 p.m., at Dovetail Artisans, 105 East Glenside Ave., Glenside (215-887-2220) and Friday, Dec. 7, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., at the 6th Annual Nancy’s House Fine Art and Craft Sale at The Pavilion, 261 Old York Rd. in Jenkintown.
If you know a caregiver, offer to run an errand, make a meal or sit with his/her ill family member. For more information, visit www.nancys-house.org.
Barbara Sherf is a frequent contributor to the Local and a caregiver. She can be reached at Barb@CommunicationsPro.com or 215-233-8022.