Wednesday, 26 September 2012

The Wisdom of Auntie Nellie - Stretch for Health


When our son Nicholas was diagnosed with severe cerebral palsy over 23 years ago, he was four months old and I was very frightened.  I was frightened, but also determined to learn as much as I could about how to care for my baby.  I was full of the kind of youthful optimism that bordered on naivete - in those days, I believed that I could CURE Nick through the power of my will and my knowledge.  Members of our extended family arrived at our door with casseroles, hugs and tears.  But my husband’s Auntie Nellie had knowledge about how to help Nicholas - Anelia, or Nellie as we call her, is a highly skilled physiotherapist and when she arrived, she stayed for days.  I remember Nellie and I, still in our pyjamas at four in the afternoon, half lying on our spare bed with tiny Nick.  Nellie explained the patterns of spasticity and how to gentle my baby’s limbs into relaxed symmetry.

Now, years later, I see Auntie Nellie at the cottage - her cottage is next door to ours.  Last night, she came over for dinner and I asked her this, “Nell, you know so much about caregiving and helping seniors.  You have spent your life healing sore muscles and bones.  What can you tell caregivers that no one else will?  What are your secrets?”

As generous as she was all those years ago, Nellie shared her wisdom for caregivers.  Here are her secrets:

People who give physical care over time will often put pressure on their joints and muscles while in an unnatural position.  (I did this by lifting Nicholas into car seats and into his wheelchair for years - now I am paying the price with back pain.)  Caregivers are taught correct lifting techniques, but are often not made aware that they need to STRETCH in order to counteract the repetitive strain on the joints and spine. 
This full body stretch can be done in bed when you wake up, following your morning shower or after you deliver care (whenever you can!)

People who give physical care over time will often lose flexibility and range of motion in their upper back and shoulders.  They will begin to look bent over with a rounded upper back and shoulders that refuse to rotate backward.  Often, caregivers are unable to reach straight up to the ceiling or even clasp their hands behind their back, and for good reason.  We are often stiff and sore.  Here are Nellie’s stretches to make sure you stay flexible, pain-free and healthy.   The first stretch is done in a doorway with your feet hip-width apart.  Stand straight, with your hands on the door frame at shoulder height (level).  Now look at the next picture to see Nellie leaning forward for her stretch.
Now, lean forward, allowing your shoulders to rotate back.  Your shoulder blades will come together and your chest will be open.If you experience pain, your loved one is probably ready for an OT assessment for assistive devices.  Don’t put off getting hardware to ease the strain on your body. Nellie says if you can, make sure you are stronger than the person you look after.  (I made this mistake and didn’t get a ceiling track hoist for Nicholas until he was 18.  The discs in my lower back have now mostly disintegrated after years of heavy lifting.)

REST your back, but do it properly.  Here’s how:  Lie on the floor with your lower legs and feet resting on a sofa.  Make sure that your bottom is close to the sofa and your entire spine is aligned.  This might require a small towel being placed behind your head to make sure your neck is perfectly straight.  You should have no pain in this position.
While you're down there, reach your arms straight up to release the tension in your shoulders.  Push up with flexed wrists and hold, then release.

I'm sure you have heard this adage before, but in an airplane, they always tell you to put the oxygen mask on yourself before your child, in the event of decompression in the cabin.  So, remember to always look after yourself first and often, so that you can hang in there for the long term giving care.  Stretch and strength - that's the wisdom of Auntie Nellie.
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