After the death of his father left him as the sole caregiver for his sister with schizoaffective disorder, Willingboro resident George Brice didn't take long to realize the stress and around-the-clock focus would start taking a toll on his own well-being.

Parenting came with an extra, very difficult layer for East Brunswick resident Karen Rea, whose 19-year-old son was diagnosed with autism at age 2 and whose 12-year-old daughter was recently diagnosed with depression and anxiety. The loss of her husband three years ago took away the in-home support she once had.

Oftentimes, family members who care for loved ones with mental or physical disabilities can forget to take care of themselves. The relentless, 24/7 role requires a strength — both physical and emotional — that could prove overwhelming and cause a burnout that doesn't benefit the caregiver or the person in their charge.

Luckily, the journey's been a bit easier for both Brice and Rea, who participated in the new Caregiver Wellness program at Rutgers, which provides self-care education and techniques for those tasked with caring for adults with developmental disabilities or mental illness.

Funded by the state and federal government, the program is a collaboration between Rutgers University Behavioral Health Care and Rutgers School of Health Professions.

Caregivers learn how even a few minutes of simple yoga, meditation and breathing exercises can reduce stress.

"The yoga and meditation teaches them how to pause and roll with situations rather than react to them, which leads to more effective caregiving," said project manager Margaret Swarbrick.

Following the free course, Brice integrated meditation and yoga into his daily routine.

"My yoga practices captivated my sister's interest, and a few weeks after I started going to classes at a local studio, she asked to join me," Brice said. "Now, we go together, and she is managing her stress better, too."

Rea said the course made her realize you don't need to set aside a half-hour for yourself to get quality alone time.

"Before I'll go into the house, I'll just sit for a minute ... I'll just get myself centered, get myself calm and take a few breaths, and then I'm ready to continue on," Rea said.

The program's even turned her into less of a "hot head in traffic," she said.

Through research and a series of focus groups, Rutgers discovered a lack of programs that teach self-care skills to caregivers. To motivate participation, Swarbrick said the program is in contact with the New Jersey chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, as well as the Mom2Mom peer support line.

"When you're on a plane, you've got to put the mask on yourself because you can put it on someone else," Swarbrick said.

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