To paraphrase a question a friend recently asked me “How does one meet their own needs and find balance while caring for a loved one with a chronic illness?”

My own experience with caregiving helps me answer that question. In 1996 my father was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. This coincided with the birth of the Parkinson’s Association of Southwest Florida. My father and I both volunteered with this great group. By 2000 Dad’s PD had progressed and my husband and I became the full-time care partners. Because I had consulted in skilled nursing facilities in the past, I was determined to keep dad in his own home and if possible, die at home. Although I had worked with care partners in the past, until I became a care partner for my father, I really didn’t understand the challenges they go through.

Diseases such as Parkinson’s, ALS, MS and other neurological diseases typically have a slow progression, often giving the care partner some time to understand and even to prepare for the future. Other neurological challenges such as strokes and TBI’s happen suddenly and the family may experience high anxiety and fear with the changes in their loved one and their lives.

Whether their loved ones challenge is chronic or acute, the care partner’s life is turned upside down. They have often lost the freedom to do things they once enjoyed such as playing tennis or pickle ball, getting to their own doctor appointments, or just going shopping.

A caregivers emotions will, understandably range from sadness to grief and anger. One of the most difficult tasks for the care partner to make time for is self-care. The impact of living in a long term, stressful environment impacts the physical body as well as the mind. In our improv for Parkinson’s and their Caregivers classes we use meditation and Mindfulness techniques to help them learn to relax and take one day (or one minute) at a time.

Here in southwest Florida there are many retired couples whose families are scattered around the country. They may not have a good local support system and are not aware of community resources. This can lead to feeling overwhelmed and anxious.

There are many benefits of therapeutic improv for caregivers, the first being the awareness that they are not alone and others share their feelings, even those feelings perceived as “negative” such as resentments and irritation. With improv exercises there is an increase in the ability to empathize, improve communication skills and take risks. But the most valuable aspect of improv for care partners is laughter and fun. I think the comments of one of our care partners sums it up best.

“I felt such relief! I was able to be in the moment and just release all the tension I’d been carrying, laugh and have fun!”

Margot Escott incorporates over 30 years experience as a counselor, speaker and teacher in her wellness classes that are designed to use humor, play and improv to achieve well being. In addition to teaching and performing improv professionally, Margot has presented workshops and seminars on “Therapeutic Value of Humor and Play” on a national level and was a featured speaker at the Chicago “Yes, and” conference on Improvisation and Mental Health.