For male caregivers, a respite from the inner hero

Ray Miller (left) and David Hale talk about the stresses associated with caring for a seriously ill family member. TOM BRIGLIA / For The Inquirer
Ray Miller (left) and David Hale talk about the stresses associated with caring for a seriously ill family member. TOM BRIGLIA / For The Inquirer
Posted: November 06, 2013

Caring for a seriously ill family member is so all-consuming, Elissa Lewin says, that a person often "forgets to breathe."

That's breathe, as in stop, exhale, and relax - a stress-reducing, health-enhancing, mind-centering pause in the 24/7 flow of full-time caregiving.

"Put your pinkie to your navel, and take a belly breath," Lewin, 59, says, as those of us seated around the table at the Colonial Inn at Smithville, Atlantic County, follow the leader.

It's the second day of a "Respite Retreat for Men" sponsored by Nancy's House (, the Wyncote, Pa., nonprofit Lewin founded in 2004. The retreats are offered quarterly, and cost $200 or less, depending on a participant's income.

On Monday, two gentlemen, both of whom have cared for their seriously ill wives for many years, are on hand; a third man signed up but was a no-show.

"It's the John Wayne thing," Lewin, a psychologist and family therapist, explains. "Men often are not very good at getting in with those deep, messy feelings."

The retreat's schedule of yoga, massage, meditation, talk therapy, and stress reduction exercises sounds cool to me. Others may find the offerings a bit too new age for their liking.

But regardless of gender, or generation, "caregivers are fried all the time," agrees Amanda Ann Godwin, 56, a massage therapist and yoga instructor from North Carolina helping Lewin lead the retreat.

"They fall through the cracks," Godwin adds. "This retreat is about giving them time for themselves."

Says Haddonfield resident Bob Schaeffer, a Nancy's House volunteer, "I can sympathize with the plight of the caregiver, because I've been one. Nancy's House addresses their frustration, and isolation. It buoys the spirit."

(Lewin named Nancy's House for a massage therapist friend who cared for a son with autism.)

Spouses, parents, and grown children who care for a seriously ill loved one with dementia, multiple sclerosis, Lou Gehrig's, or other diseases can suffer from insomnia, isolation, and physiological ailments, such as high blood pressure.

No wonder: They're living in a constant state of emergency, say Lewin and Godwin.

"A retreat can be a lifeline," says Donna McQuade, a Monmouth County resident who is the membership, program and office coordinator for Well Spouse.

The national nonprofit ( is not associated with Nancy's House, but it does sponsor spousal caregiver support groups, including one in Cherry Hill.

"Many of us haven't taken a vacation or had any kind of respite for many many years," says McQuade, who has cared for her quadriplegic husband for three decades. "You don't realize how much it affects you as a person."

Retreat participants David Hale, 77, and Ray Miller, 67, are living with the effects. Hale's wife, Carolyn, has multiple sclerosis, and Miller's wife, Margaret, has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

Both women live at home and are determined to remain independent despite their debilitating conditions.

"I can't tell you what a relief it is" to be on retreat, says Hale, a retired Temple University theater professor who lives in Chestnut Hill.

"I'm so tired. Just exhausted. I have been for days," he says, adding that a retreat "gives you perspective - I've got it easier than some."

Miller, who is semiretired, teaches business at a community college near his home in Columbia, Md.

His wife of 43 years, with whom he has two children and four grandchildren, is in stage four of pulmonary failure.

"I live with an oxygen machine in the house," says Miller, who is being treated for insomnia. "Trying to get to sleep here last night, I was listening for that machine, and I didn't hear it. It was so quiet."

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