A word from Jack Mulholland, Community Access and Inclusion Facilitator, Maroondah City Council 

Caring for a person with a disability or managing their mental health comes with great love and reward, but this can also come at a cost for the carer or the carer’s own health and social well-being.

Prior to the National Disability Insurance Scheme, carers had the lowest well-being of any large group measured by the Australian Unity Wellbeing index.  Physically, carers are more likely to carry an injury, and almost twice as many carers are in poor physical health as compared to the general population.

Mental well-being finds show that carers have an average rating on the depression scale that is classified as ‘moderate depression’.

 ‘Without Pathways I don’t know where I would be. It has improved my mental health and wellbeing which has taken my self-confidence into other areas of my life’

Socially, many carers feel isolated, missing the social opportunities associated with work, recreation and leisure activities where the demands of caring can leave little time for other family members or friends.

With all the above in mind and with the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) due to commence in Maroondah in 2015, there was a real concern at the time that carers would be overloaded even further in trying to get their head around the NDIS and complete all the required paperwork.

To assist carers an idea was developed by Maroondah City Council in working with local carer Mel Spencer in creating Pathways for Carers.  Pathways for Carers is a program that offers carers an opportunity to connect with other carers in a relaxing and supportive environment by taking a walk through nature and enjoying a coffee together at a local café afterwards.

Maroondah City Council in partnership with LifeAssist, Yarra Ranges Council and Mt. Evelyn Community House officially commenced in October 2015, where carers were joined by the Parliamentary Secretary for Carers on their very first walk along the Mullum Creek Trail.  This bushland trail close to the heart of Ringwood offers a natural environment with flat surfaces, free from noise apart from the surrounding native birds.

Carers walking side by side through a natural environment with others who also care, enables carers to have a deeper connection and frees them up from their own isolated thoughts.  The environment also lends itself to the building of trust and rapport with support services as they meet on equal footing, where their thoughts, feelings and needs can be truly heard.

Walking in natural environments (Suzuki D, 2016) can decrease over-thinking and rumination about causes and consequences of negative experiences and the very nature of exercise produces endorphins.

The program includes a guest walker who interacts with carers during the walk, which allows the guest walker a great opportunity to ensure their short presentation at the café after the walk really resonates with carers.  The guest walkers chosen by the lead carer are quite varied, from service providers, politicians, health professionals to council staff.  A shared learning is taken away as the guest walker learns from the carers in addition to passing on their knowledge and expertise. These learnings on some occasions have seen organisations introduce new programs and adjust existing programs.

there has never been a guest speaker where I have not learnt something’.

Pathways for Carers has seen many benefits for the carers by increasing knowledge on what’s available with carer support, increased knowledge on the NDIS, the development of new friendships and connections, an increase in health and well-being, and most important of all, the feeling of no longer being alone. For one previously more isolated carer, these Pathways experiences have directly led to her now accessing 13 unique services, all through information received through these walks.

‘I have accessed support for the first time. I am becoming a much better advocate for my children as I now know where to look for advice and help’.

The Pathways for Carers program has been able to maximise the benefits for carers with additional support provided by local service providers, staff at council (NDIS Transition Coordinator) and community houses, who all attend the walks.

In addition to the two original walks in Ringwood and Mt. Evelyn, the program has expanded within the Eastern region with walks now also in Monash and Knox, a first weekend walk (Saturday) in Maroondah and a Healesville walk in the Yarra Ranges.

Participating in Pathways for Carers walk, has provided me a greater understanding of carer’s needs, their inner strengths and how much love, sacrifice and care they provide.  A greater insight to carers and the people they care for has helped shaped our work. Such is the impact of the program, Council built and installed a Pathways for Carers seat in the walking trail in acknowledgment of carers and the program.

As we emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic, Councils, Community Houses and Organisations will be seeking opportunities to best support the recovery of their community. This program is essential if you look closely at the impact COVID-19 has had on carers.  During COVID-19, with some services ceasing or reducing in-person offerings, many carers have increased their caring responsibilities, while their own support networks have decreased.  Constantly remaining indoors and the cancellation of some formal supports and social groups have impacted carers, where many carers have expressed feeling overwhelmed, exhausted and socially isolated.

Pathways for Carers will gently open up opportunities for carers to reconnect in an understanding environment.  It will also offer them opportunities to get physically moving again in a natural environment after spending so long indoors.  The structure of Pathways for Carers program makes it easier to converse with other carers in a relaxing environment, therefore combating any social anxieties they may have otherwise experienced.

“The Pathways Program allowed me to have a voice at a time when my self esteem was very low.”

 

I would encourage Councils in the planning for recovery to get in touch with Interchange Outer East, who received funding by the State Government to roll out this project state wide.  Further information on Pathways for Carers can be found on

www.pathwaysforcarers.com.au and www.facebook.com/pathwaysforcarersvic

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