Why the Wild Things Are

Animals and nature in the lives of children.

A Natural Remedy for Caregiver Stress

Fight stress with a dose of green spring.

All of us out here in the trenches of the brutal winter of 2014 (and that’s most of the USA) are yearning for signs of spring. Underneath that snow and ice, surely green shoots are valiantly trying to inch out to greet us. The birds, the bees, the flowers, the leafy trees—bring it on, we plead. Getting out of the cabin and into nature—one that doesn’t whip us with dangerous wind chill factors—feels long overdue.

Contact with nature helps everyone, but research shows it can be especially helpful in reducing stress. In one study of office workers at a university, the more nature contact at work they reported—perhaps by having a view of trees out of window, or using their lunch break for an outdoor walk—the lower their workplace stress. Viewing nature scenes hastens recovery from surgery. Gardening, walking in woods or parks, even just sitting on a garden bench and watching birds—all these simple activities have been linked to lower depression and greater feelings of well-being.

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What’s good for any of us suffering from winter blues may be especially beneficial for caregivers, whether family members or professionals. Caregiver burnout occurs when the stress of caring for another leads to such high levels of stress that the caregiver feels unable to continue to provide adequate care. Such burnout is a well known challenge for family members and professional staff who care for Alzheimer’s patients, children with severe disabilities or anyone with a chronic illness. Several trends in our society are making caregiver stress a more important issue. Aging baby boomers are swelling the ranks of seniors and living ever longer lives, leading many to warn of an impending “Silver Tsunami” of need for care. As the size of elderly cohorts grows, so too do rates of dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, and other afflictions of the aging process. At the same time, economic pressures on the health care system shift many care-giving tasks to other family members, leaving them with few resources and support. Small family size, high geographic mobility, and demanding work commitments mean that family members often are hard pressed to be available to their ailing parents or grandparents. The AARP estimates that the ratio of family members to seniors over 80 will drop from 7:1 to 4:1 in 2030 and only 2.9:1 by 2050.

“Who cares for the caregivers?” Answering this question demands a multi-pronged approach.  Respite care and caregiver support, from friends, family and groups, helps. What’s often ignored, however, are the small changes in environment that can calm and de-stress caregivers, as well as those they care for. The restorative powers of nature—green plants, views of trees or water from a window,  sounds of leaves rustling or water flowing—can provide a “time out” from  stressful care-giving. Giving a caregiver you know time for a quiet walk in the park might be just the gift needed.

Gail F. Melson, Ph.D., is Professor of Child Development and Family Studies at Purdue University.

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