October 2012

Meditation for Caregivers

Meditation’s Proven Benefits for Caregivers and Older Adults

Gyms and spas have been boasting the benefits of meditation and yoga for quite some time, and many people find it to be a great outlet for reducing stress. Two recent studies–one focusing on senior adults and the other focusing on caregivers of Alzheimer’s patients–show that meditation does indeed reduce stress and loneliness.

The first study was conducted by Carnegie Mellon University’s J. David Creswell and provides the first evidence that mindfulness meditation reduces loneliness in older adults. Loneliness has been proven to be a major risk factor for health problems, such as cardiovascular disease and Alzheimer’s, and death in our senior population. Attempts at community based programs such as community centers and senior socialization programs have been largely ineffective, so the idea that meditation could be a fix for the problem is encouraging.

“We always tell people to quit smoking for health reasons, but rarely do we think about loneliness in the same way,” said Creswell, assistant professor of psychology within CMU’s Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences. “We know that loneliness is a major risk factor for health problems and mortality in older adults. This research suggests that mindfulness meditation training is a promising intervention for improving the health of older adults.”

In the study, researchers studied 40 healthy adults ranging in age from 55-85 who had an interest in learning about mindfulness meditation techniques. Each was assessed at the beginning of the study, and again at the end, using an established loneliness scale. Blood samples were also collected. Half of the participants received the 8-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program. They spent two hours each week learning body awareness techniques, which they practiced 30 minutes each day. They also attended a day long retreat.

The results were interesting. In addition to reporting decreased loneliness, the group that participated in the MBSR program also had lower levels of pro-inflammatory gene expression in their immune cells than they did at the beginning of the program.

“Reductions in the expression of inflammation-related genes were particularly significant because inflammation contributes to a wide variety of the health threats including cancer, cardiovascular diseases and neurodegenerative diseases,” said study collaborator Steven Cole, professor of medicine and psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at the UCLA School of Medicine. “These results provide some of the first indications that immune cell gene expression profiles can be modulated by a psychological intervention.”

Mindfulness Meditation for Caregivers

The second study took place at UCLA and was led by Dr. Helen Lavretsky, a senior author, professor of psychiatry at the UCLA Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior, and director of the UCLA’s Late-Life Depression, Stress, and Wellness Research Program. The study looked at the stress levels in family caregivers of Alzheimer’s patients and the benefits of yoga for their day-to-day life.

“We know that chronic stress places caregivers at a higher risk for developing depression,” she said “On average, the incidence and prevalence of clinical depression in family dementia caregivers approaches 50 percent. Caregivers are also twice as likely to report high levels of emotional distress.”

The study participants were randomly placed in two groups. One group was taught the 12-minute yoga practice, which included Kirtan Kriya Meditation (KKM). The yoga practice was done each day at the same time for eight weeks. The second group listened to instrumental music on a relaxation CD for 12 minutes each day, also at the same time each day. Blood samples were taken at the beginning and end of the study. The results showed that 68 genes responded differently after the KKM practice, which resulted in a lower immune system inflammation response. When inflammation is continually activated, it contributes to many problems.

“The goal of the study was to determine if meditation might alter the activity of inflammatory and antiviral proteins that shape immune cell gene expression,” said Lavretsky. “Our analysis showed a reduced activity of those proteins linked directly to increased inflammation. This is encouraging news. Caregivers often don’t have the time, energy, or contacts that could bring them a little relief from the stress of taking care of a loved one with dementia, so practicing a brief form of yogic meditation, which is easy to learn, is a useful too.”

Mindfulness and yogic chanting–our view of health and medicine keeps getting broader and more all-encompassing every day!


Video source:

Image sources:

Universal Design Inclusive Playground

Universal Design Makes Playgrounds Inclusive of Disabilities

For parents like Laurie Schulze, the playground is not often a place associated with fun and happy memories. Her daughter, Leah, has spina bifida and was unable to enjoy the majority of the playground equipment that was designed without kids in wheelchairs in mind. But all of that changed on a beautiful sunny day in Westerville, Ohio, when Laurie and Leah found an inclusive playground.

“It was very emotional because it wasn’t just Leah playing,” Schulze said. “There were other children with disabilities with their families. Just to see her jumping in and participating was so great. Words can’t describe how wonderful that felt.”

The playground at Millstone Creek Park is one of about 100 inclusive playgrounds in the United States, and was built with the intention of allowing children of all ages and learning levels, including those with disabilities, to enjoy the benefits of play.

“Everything melted together and it was just amazing to see everyone playing together,” Schulze said. “There were happy smiling faces everywhere. It was wonderful chaos.”

Universally Accessible Playground for Kids with Disabilities

The Importance of Inclusive Playgrounds

Inclusive playgrounds address the needs of all children, including those with autism, hearing impairments, cerebral palsy, spina bifida and other challenges, according to information in a recent report titled Inclusive Play Design Guide from Playworld Systems, a leading playground equipment manufacturer.

“From birth until death, play is a vital part of human development,” said JC Boushh, a Design for Play expert. “For children, especially, play is how they come to understand the world around them. Play provides those things that you can’t get anywhere else.”

According Mara Kaplan, lead expert for Let Kids Play and mother of a child with disabilities, play can even help mitigate stereotypes and biases that many adults and children have about children with disabilities.

“A typically developing child who’s never seen a child with a disability will just start playing with them because they haven’t been told that person is different or weird or strange,” she said.

While the Americans with Disabilities Act does have established guidelines for specifications on playgrounds, the guidelines don’t promise a fun playground that is inclusive for all kids. The guidelines and standards aren’t always followed, and the ADA just updated the guidelines with better design practices for playgrounds.

“The requirements are now much better defined and much more enforceable,” Boushh said. “We came up with the idea of an inclusive playground, but no one really defined it. Only now are people starting to really understand what inclusion is.”

“Most kids with disabilities have been outside the scope of play,” he added. “There was nothing for them to do once they got to the playground. Now, the idea is to design playgrounds that are inclusive not just for mobility impairments but also for cognitive and sensory disabilities.”

The Inclusive Play Design Guide helps playground designers better understand what kids need, and defines inclusion so that effective playgrounds can be built and managed. A range of experts, from landscape architects to parents of children with disabilities, were consulted before the Inclusive Play Design Guide was written.

Universal Design Accessible Playground Equipment

The Cost of Inclusive Playgrounds

The cost of building a normal playground is estimated to be around $100,000. The cost to build an inclusive playground is between $500,000 and $1 million. The playground at Millstone Creek Park was largely funded by community fundraising and the effort of parents like Laurie Schultz.

“The majority, about 75 percent of the funding, comes from outside sources,” Boushh said. “Most are funded by grants and fundraisers.

“There is often money from the city, park district, or school,” Kaplan said. “People fund-raise and raise money the way they always have. There is also a lot of support from local foundations and businesses because the playgrounds are built for the community and their needs.”

Experts agree the playgrounds are worth every penny.

“I hope there will be more in the future and that people will make conscious decisions on how to design these playgrounds,” Kaplan said. “It’s no fun to sit on the sidelines and watch siblings and friends play.”

“I am encouraged that I see more of these parks coming,” Schulze said. “Millstone is just amazing because everyone can play together. Every time I drive by it makes me smile.”


Employment First Act Hiring Disabled Workers

The Bipartisan Push to Increase Disability Employment

Democratic Governor Jack Markell from Delaware and Republican Congressman Pete Sessions from Texas are nearly polar opposites ideologically speaking, but that has not stopped the two have from uniting together to help push a public-private initiative to get companies hiring disabled workers. Currently, over 80% of the disabled workforce is unemployed, a number the two agree is out of control.

Governor Jack Markell and Representative Pete Sessions

In mid-July, the National Governors Association (NGA) met in Williamsburg, Virginia. The hot topic of the meeting was the nation’s extremely high unemployment rate, and how to create jobs for the millions of the nation’s unemployed. However, Governor Jack Markell, who was recently selected to head the NGA for the next year, chose to focus on the special needs community.

“There are a lot of people who want to be working in our country, and aren’t given a shot.” stated Gov. Markell, who dubbed his initiative, “A Better Bottom Line: Employing People with Disabilities.”

Governor Markell believes that a targeted initiative “can move the needle” in regards to hiring. He believes that the 80% unemployment rate those with disabilities face is “staggering” and that the solution is outreach and education.

Delaware Governor Jack Markell Employment First Act

Texas Representative Pete Sessions is the chair of the National Republican Campaign Committee (NRCC). His politics are polar opposite of Governor Markell, who is a Democrat and a huge supporter of the Obama campaign. Markell was surprised to find such a passionate ally in Sessions when it came to disability rights.

Representative Sessions has a son with Down syndrome. He has publicly commented on having one son in the upper 2% of academic ability, and one in the lowest 2%. It was the difference between the two that motivated him to become the leading Republican advocate in Congress for those with physical and mental disabilities.

TX Rep Pete Sessions with His Son with Down Syndrome

Sessions stated that his sons, Bill, 22, and Alex, 18, both have needs and goals, they simply have to be met differently. “He can’t be the state wrestling champion like Bill, but he has pride and he wants to be successful, too.” Alex has already overcome obstacles to become an Eagle Scout like his older brother, father and grandfather before him.

It’s a well-known fact that today’s GOP does not celebrate former Republican president George H.W. Bush’s Americans with Disabilities Act, signed in 1990. Sessions is not looking for another government-driven program. On the contrary, he thinks there are far too many at the state and federal level currently. He got behind Markell’s initiative because it’s a public-private initiative that doesn’t force businesses to do anything.

Governor Markell Signing Employment First Act for Disabiltiies

While Markell doesn’t have the personal experience that Sessions has to spur his desire for change, he did have a moment where the light bulb turned on. Markell was attending an event sponsored by Bank of America, when he met a newly hired 25-year-old with Down syndrome. Markell asked the new hire what he did before getting the job with Bank of America, and and the young man responded that for six years he watched TV with his mom and Dad. Markell knew it was time for change.

Delaware Governor Markell Signs Disability Employment First Act

While it has taken a while for Markell to bring the issue into focus, he signed the Employment First Act (House Bill 319) into law in Delaware, which requires state agencies that supply services to the disabled to also consider hiring them. This is the first step in what Markell and Sessions hope will be many of positive change for workers with disabilities.


Image sources: