Life a Plenty – Recuperative retreats help women caregivers recharge

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Most women caring for their families understand how life can be busy, stressful and sometimes a downright grind. Most of us though, are able to find a pressure release – even if it’s as simple as going for a walk by ourselves.

For some Bay of Plenty women however, the workload and stress is exhausting, leading them to become depressed, anxious and lonely. This is particularly the case for those who have the added responsibility of looking after whānau with special needs, and for grandparents who have become full-time caregivers to their grandchildren.

Barbara Hill, Anne Martin and Cushla Summers are Tauranga women who are passionate about helping Bay of Plenty women claim back control in their lives. They co-ordinate and facilitate free recuperative retreats for women who can’t afford to get the help and much-needed rest they need in order to press the re-set button on their lives.

“Often women are over functioning – doing more than their share just to keep the balls in the air,” says Barbara. “They find themselves trapped in family situations. As well as carrying the physical burdens of a family, they end up carrying the emotional burdens as well.

“As women we can lose ourselves when we get into the habit of over-functioning because we don’t assert ourselves or ask for help when we need it from the other family members.

The relentless workload family members put on women might not be intentional, and it often happens gradually without a chance to measure how much women are taking on.

She says women are hungry to push a re-set button, and the retreats are the beginning of regaining confidence and a positive direction for many.

Recuperation and reflection

The therapeutic retreats are run by Life a Plenty, a Tauranga-based social enterprise that has a mission to help people in the region find meaning, hope and fulfillment in their lives.

While the retreats have no religious content, they are held at a monastery on the outskirts of Rotorua. Located in the serene and peaceful Waikite Valley, and bordering a lake, it is the perfect place for recuperation and reflection. The women can climb hills, walk in the beautiful gardens, or just sit quietly by themselves – simple pleasures some have not been able to do in years.

“Change comes from being able to stand back in a quiet, relaxing environment, listening to other women who are talking about the very same issues they are facing. It is so much easier to assess their own position when they hear someone else describing it back to them,” says Barbara.

“Being able to connect, support one another and take time out to take a breath is important. Once women realise what they are going through is normal, they can be a little bit kinder to themselves,” says Anne.

“Also, the fact that they have time, sufficient sleep, someone else looking after them, doing the cooking for them, and a listening ear makes a difference,” says Cushla.

Life skills sessions are offered at the retreats, however participation isn’t compulsory as the whole idea of the retreat is to give participants freedom with their time – something they don’t get in the real world. Sessions cover a range of topics such as coping under stress, mindfulness, relaxation techniques, the mind/body connection, goal setting and problem solving.

“We’re also able to respond to particular issues and adapt to the needs of the group. Some groups might need help around grief, while another group might need help around relationship stress and we would modify our content and respond to that,” says Barbara.

Support and back up

Anne, who is a counsellor and family therapist, says it’s important women are given a toolbox of skills so when they return to the family they can start to make positive changes. “The retreat gives them the motivation to make changes and create boundaries for themselves, and it gives women the space to make decisions on how to move forward,” she says.

Extra back-up is also offered once women leave, including referral to health professionals, on-going counselling, access to workshops on anxiety and depression and other community resources.

Barbara says it can be hard for anyone, including herself, to cope with life’s bustle and busyness, and she often needs to remind herself of the skills she teaches.

“You realise how quickly you can lose it again and we can all lapse into stress and tension and end up fire-fighting, so it is critically important to have a toolkit for women to take away.”

Women who participate are under extreme stress, which is sometimes compounded by a history of sexual abuse or domestic violence. Poor mental health, socio-economic disadvantage and parenting issues have a flow-on effect to the wider family and community when issues are not addressed, says Barbara. She has been facilitating women’s groups for 35 years and believes “once your inner life comes right, your outer life drops into place”.

“One thing I know is when a woman is feeling balanced emotionally, physically, intellectually, and spiritually, when she is at peace with herself, there is a huge impact on the tone inside the home and how her children go out into the world.”

“When we are integrated, that’s when you make a difference to others,” says Cushla. “If you teach a woman to connect with herself, you connect the whānau, and in turn, connect the entire community through her.”

In order to qualify for the retreat, participants must be recommended for a period of rest and recuperation by a health professional such as a general practitioner, social worker or church minister. There is strict criteria, including a lack of financial resources, high stress and having others depend on you. Numbers are kept deliberately low (a maximum of eight) so that women get the attention they need.

The five-day retreats are run by Life a Plenty, a social enterprise and service arm of Ora Charitable Trust. It has been offering the retreats to women in the Bay of Plenty region since 2015. See www.lifeaplenty.nz or contact Cushla on 0274 202 363 for more information.