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The Cayuga/Seneca Community Action Agency recognizes September as National Kinship Care Month. The agency’s Kinship Care Program assists families in Cayuga County where children reside in the care of relatives or close family friends on a temporary or permanent basis. While some kinship caregivers provide for children other than their own for only a few years, the majority provide care over an extended period of time for many years. Some children arrive at their kinship homes as newborns and are cared their entire lives by kinship caregivers.

As a mental health specialist for the agency's Kinship Care Program, I recently completed my certification in grandfamilies leadership through the University of Maine Center on Aging. The training provided great information relevant to working with kinship families; one module about self-care particularly stood out as important.

Experience has taught me that most kinship caregivers provide undivided love and time to children who have come unexpectedly into their care; many are grandparents and/or retirees. Their days are long, stress levels elevated, and energy not quite as high as it once was. They often forget to make time, or struggle to find time, for themselves.

The grandfamilies leadership training reaffirmed that for kinship caregivers — or caregivers in any situation — self–care is critically important to avoid compassion fatigue and/or burnout. Compassion fatigue can appear as lack of energy, isolation from friends/family, feelings of despair or hopelessness, sleep disturbances, emotion outbursts, confusion, numbness or difficulty in decision-making. Most kinship caregivers I have assisted have experienced some or all of these feelings.

Self-care can come in many forms. Good physical well-being plays a part in self-care with daily exercise, eating well, getting enough sleep, avoiding alcohol and drugs and keeping up with wellness appointments. Yet physical well-being alone does not guarantee emotional well-being, which we often place on the side-burner when it comes to the many priorities in our lives.

Practicing relaxation exercises, finding a quiet place each day for a few minutes to yourself, enjoying a quiet walk or working on your favorite hobby — all of these activities can promote a happier lifestyle. Embrace those things in your life that you enjoy doing and that you notice calm you down or make you feel centered.

Another important self-care strategy is to understand boundaries and how they can assist you in lowering stress. Boundaries can mean many things, but in this instance are associated with understanding your responsibilities and those of the other party. As an example, while working with one kinship caregiver, it became very noticeable that her stress level was rising as she tried to adhere to a family court order for supervised visitation by the father of the child in her care. In order to comply with the court, the caregiver had been driving the child a considerable distance to the father because he lacked transportation. Repeatedly, the father was not home at the time of the scheduled visit, so repeatedly, the caregiver kept going back.

During my monthly visit with this caregiver, our discussion turned to setting boundaries around this situation. We discussed that although the court afforded the father the right to see his child, it also assumed he would do his rightly duty and be at home at the time of the scheduled visit. After discussion with the caregiver, it was clear she wanted to follow the court order exactly. Together we sat and listed her concerns and stress around this situation, and came up with questions she could ask the judge at the next court date to better understand her responsibilities, as well as the father’s.

Like many kinship caregivers, this one is a very caring, responsible person who wants to help the parents of the child ultimately gain custody back. After speaking with the judge about her concerns, the caregiver understood that she had been taking on responsibilities of the child’s father and causing herself significant stress. The caregiver was able to set healthy boundaries around visits, which allowed her to focus on her own responsibilities and demonstrate to the parents that they also have responsibilities to both her and their child.

Knowing how important self-care is in caring for others, the agency’s Kinship Care Program will begin offering a support group this September during Kinship Care Month. This group of positive peers will provide a forum for caregivers to refuel, share feelings and discuss experiences brought on by the continuous caring for others. If you or someone you know is a kinship caregiver, please contact the agency's Kinship Care Program for more information about the services and resources available to help here in Cayuga County.

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Deborah Riester is a mental health specialist with the Cayuga/Seneca Community Action Agency's Kinship Care Program. She can be reached at (315) 255-1703 ext. 161 or driester@cscaa.com.

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