Monday, June 2, 2014

A refuge for parents caring for kids in hospital

Once a week Claire Stoten sits on a meditation cushion and focuses on her breathing. “It forces me to stop doing all of the jobs—the organizing, e-mails, research and care for my son,” she says, sitting in her son Felix’s inpatient room at Holland Bloorview.

Felix, 13, who has a neuromuscular condition, had a 10-hour surgery to fuse his spine at the end of March. Prior to that his spine was so curved he couldn’t sit up, his mother says.

For the second week in a row Claire has participated in a 40-minute mindfulness session for parents of inpatients and daypatients. Without the structure of the hospital program, she says, she'd never set aside that time for herself.

“It comes back to that analogy of when you’re in the airplane, the parent is supposed to put the oxygen mask on first, because if they don’t, they may pass out before being able to help their child,” says Anna Marie Batelaan, social worker in the brain injury rehab unit at Holland Bloorview. Anna Marie has been leading a weekly mindfulness session for parents for four months. “They need to take care of their own needs to have more ability and energy to care for the child.”

Mindfulness involves paying attention to the present moment, Anna Marie says. “It’s giving yourself permission to focus on you and focus on the here and now, without judgment. Our minds are constantly busy and this is one way to pause and catch your breath and refocus.” Anna Marie says our bodies are built to focus on the negative, but we can retrain our brains to notice and appreciate the positive.

“This is new to a lot of families, so we’ve been doing multiple short sitting meditations of three to five minutes,” Anna Marie says. “Parents learn how to focus on their breath or we do a body scan and they send loving energy to different parts of the body. We’ve also done walking and eating meditations.”

Research on mindfulness shows that it reduces worry and stress, boosts working memory and focus, makes you less reactive and more adaptive, and improves relationships. “There’s a lot of evidence that it works with anxiety and depression and posttraumatic stress disorder,” Anna Marie says. “A lot of our parents are dealing with the posttraumatic stress of witnessing a child’s accident or illness that changed their child so dramatically.”

Anna Marie says the greatest challenge is to get parents out for a first visit. “When their child is hospitalized they tend to put their own needs way down on the list.”

She usually starts parents with meditations that focus on the breath because “they’re easy to learn and can be done anywhere and anytime. We talk about how you can fit this into your day. A parent will say ‘I’ve done it on the toilet.’”

Claire says she leaves the mindfulness session “feeling relaxed and peaceful.” Then, as a way of expanding the session, “I go to the cafeteria for 20 minutes and have a coffee. And I don’t let myself start any jobs.”

Here are some tips for beginning meditators. Anna Marie can be reached at 416-425-6220, ext. 6353.


I am so happy to hear about this and how Anna Marie is taking a lead on helping parents cope. When we were inpatients 3 years ago I don't remember anything like this. It sounds like there's more support now which is fantastic. I wonder also if parents know about Caron Gan, Family therapist for BIRT and that they can receive her services. I only found out 2.5 years after being discharged and she is fantastic in helping with acceptance, adaptation, grief, and family relations, and more. Thank you for sharing this!