Brock webinar to focus on how caregivers care for themselves

Brock University researchers will share insight into wellness strategies for caregivers of children with neurodevelopmental disabilities (NDDs) during a free public webinar next week.

Hosted by the Lifespan Development Research Institute, the virtual event will delve into research from Brock’s Department of Applied Disability Studies on the application of Acceptance Commitment Training (ACT) for caregivers.

Associate Professor Kendra Thomson will be joined by parent advocate/advisor Lee Steel to present “Acceptance and Commitment Training for Caregivers: Applications in research and real life” on Tuesday, Oct. 19 from 12:30 to 1:30 p.m. via Lifesize.

ACT is designed to help people learn how acceptance and mindfulness strategies combined with commitment and changes in behaviour can improve their psychological flexibility. A typical ACT workshop includes teaching, participatory exercises, group sharing and support.

“ACT helps us to accept that there are difficult emotions and things that will happen, but we can persevere and engage in behaviours that are in line with what we find to be valuable or what we are committed to, such as being a supportive family member,” says Thomson.

While extensive research shows that ACT has been beneficial for many individuals, the research on applying its use for caregivers of children with NDDs is relatively new.

Following up on ACT groups for caregivers in Toronto, Thomson and her team were the first to undertake a study of ACT in this context in Niagara, thanks to community partner Bethesda Services, the Azrieli Adult Neurodevelopmental Centre at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) and funding from Autism Ontario.

“Any caregiver has a lot on their plate, but oftentimes caregivers of children with neurodevelopmental disabilities have added stressors, such as navigating complicated support systems and spending a lot of their time focusing on supporting their child to best of their ability,” says Thomson. “They may not spend as much time focusing on their own wellness and coping, so with this group and ACT in general, there is an opportunity for caregivers to access some tools for wellness and share their experiences with other caregivers.”

Lee Steel, who works as a family advisor at the Azrieli Adult Neurodevelopmental Centre, first discovered ACT for caregivers as a participant. She attended a Toronto group run by the Centre’s Director Yona Lunsky, now a mentor to Steel and Thomson, and Kenneth Fung, Director of Global Mental Health at the University of Toronto. She says it is “one of the most singularly helpful things” she has ever done.

“As caregivers, often we feel good about ourselves when we’re doing things for our loved ones, especially our child with a neurodevelopmental disability, but the idea of actually looking at my own well-being came as a really distant thought at times,” says Steel. “Our ACT workshops are really about putting the focus back on ourselves as caregivers and on our own well-being and values. It gave me extremely helpful tools that are applicable to all areas of my life.”

Steel has since helped lead more than 20 successful ACT workshops in a model that sees caregivers and clinicians co-facilitating groups.

“ACT is compassionate and hopeful, and it creates an opportunity for caregivers to connect with others who understand and know that they’re not alone,” says Steel.

In the webinar, Thomson and Steel will give an overview of ACT and Steel will share her personal story. They will also discuss thesis research from Applied Disability Studies graduate students Carly Magnacca (BA ’16, MA ’20) and Amanda Marcinkiewicz (MA ’20), which has been published in Current Developmental Disorders Reports and Behavior Analysis in Practice.

The event will be helpful for caregivers, people who support caregivers, researchers and anyone who has a general interest in ACT.

The webinar is free and open to the public, but advance registration is required through the Lifespan Development Research website.

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