Caregiver Huddles: Balancing Emotional Health & Connecting with Others
By: Carolyn Ettinger
Hi. I am Carolyn Ettinger, the Executive Director at Wings of Hope Cancer Support Center in Council Bluffs, Iowa. I am also a cancer survivor. This is my personal story of growth during the COVID-19 pandemic, and my tribute to the virtual mental health programming that the Iowa Cancer Consortium helped support (through an implementation grant) at Wings of Hope.
As an introvert, I’ve always valued my time alone. I like talking with people on an individual basis and in small groups. But I also really like spending time alone. Since being diagnosed with cancer in 1994, I have worked hard at maintaining emotional balance in my life. I’ve used guided imagery, relaxation techniques, and journaling – all “alone” activities.
Even Introverts Find Isolation Taxing
However, in 2020, the pandemic brought new meaning to alone time. Along with many others, I found myself isolated from family and friends and my normal social activities. I experienced feelings of loneliness, fear, uncertainty, and anxiety during these long months. The solitary activities that had helped me stay in balance before were no longer working, I discovered. I had too much alone time already due to the pandemic and needed different ways to maintain my balance. I began to reach out in new ways to find and keep connections with loved ones, and others also searching for connection.
At Wings of Hope Cancer Support Center, we remained open and available to cancer patients and caregivers throughout the pandemic. However, in-person contact was not advised, so as quickly as possible, we began transferring our support groups and counseling services to an online format. The services we had been offering for caregivers (for example, educational workshops and supportive education for professional caregivers) were no longer possible during the shelter-in-place mandates. Patrick Davis, the Wings of Hope consultant, proposed a weekly, short and specific online check-in for caregivers. And so the “Caregiver Huddle” was born.
Implementing the SAW Method
We used Patrick’s simple 1-minute mindfulness activity, called the SAW Method, as the foundation for our weekly check-ins. The acronym SAW stands for:
S – Shift the focus to your breath (Body)
A – Appreciate any aspect of your life in this present moment (Mind)
W – Wait (Spirit)
I had been using this simple and effective mind-body-spirit tool for years when I was stressed or needed to ground myself before offering counseling or Healing Touch services.
With the weekly huddles, I experienced SAW in community. The value of the tool was deepened as was my awareness of what I was feeling during these stressful times. The experience of sharing this tool in a circle fashion with others, where there was only acceptance and understanding for each one’s experiences, gave me new insights on the power of community. Perhaps most important to an introvert like me was how comfortable I felt with a group of like-minded people. Each of us felt a need to come together during a challenging time, to turn inward for a few moments to refresh our mind-body-spirit connection, and then to share openly and deeply in a safe space. For me the Caregiver Huddle has become an important part of my own self-care.
Finding Balance and Connection
All of us are caregivers or supportive people for someone in this world. Because of the pandemic or your particular life challenges, you too might be searching for simple ways to better balance your emotional health and connect with others. I invite you to make SAW a part of your daily individual practice, but to also find a group you can trust and confide in and create your own huddle in these isolating times.
The Caregiver Huddle averages 6 participants. There were a total of 59 participants during the 4th quarter of 2020, a 10% increase from 3rd quarter. Due to the positive feedback Wings of Hope received from the Caregiver Huddle, we started another Huddle that meets weekly in the early evening. This huddle focuses on self-care skill- building for cancer patients, survivors, and caregivers. The Self-Care Huddle averages 4-5 participants each week.