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For three months last fall, Calista Njoku, a RIC R.N. to B.S.N. student helped the husband of a 71-year-old paralyzed woman care for his wife.

Thanks to the extension of a federal grant from the U.S. Department of Human Services Lifespan Respite Grant program, RIC nursing students like Njoku, along with nursing students from the University of Rhode Island (URI), will continue to provide respite care for family caregivers statewide. The Rhode Island Department of Elderly Affairs is receiving $831,000 in federal funds to continue the respite program at RIC and URI and extend it to include students at Salve Regina University and New England Institute of Technology.

Respite care is planned or emergency temporary care provided to caregivers of a child or adult. Even though many families take joy in providing care to loved ones, the physical and emotional toll for family members can be overwhelming without some support.

RIC School of Nursing Associate Dean Lynn Blanchette and RN to BSN Program Director Donna Huntley-Newby oversee RIC’s participation in the respite program.

“This extension gives the School of Nursing the opportunity to continue to explore the needs for caregivers in our community and examine how best to incorporate those skills in our nursing curriculum,’’ Blanchette said. 

Thanks to this grant, RIC students will continue to focus on providing geriatric care  across the state. 

Since 2014 RIC nursing students in the respite program have provided about 15-56 hours of respite services apiece to adults ranging in age from 47-85 years, Huntley-Newby said. Students involved in the respite care program are juniors, seniors and registered nurses like Njoku in the RN to BSN program. 

“For me, it was a good experience to see what caregivers in families go through, because most of the time they don’t have any help,’’ said Njoku, a nurse for four years who has worked in various nursing homes across Rhode Island. “For the paralyzed patient I was working with, I had to reinforce with her husband on how to use a gastrointestinal tube.’’

Then when the patient’s husband was diagnosed with colon cancer and subsequently went through surgery, Njoku said she advised him about his own personal health.

“I shared tips about nutrition and hydration,’’ she said. “If he’s not in good condition, there’s no way he can care for his wife.’’

Additionally, caregivers appreciate assistance from students; caregivers benefit from opportunities to take breaks, socialize, spend time with other family members, complete chores and other activities, Huntley-Newby said.

“Families have expressed that their loved ones were well cared for by our nursing students,’’ she said. “In several instances the caregiver and student developed a partnership in providing care and shared best practices that supported patient outcomes. Several students are interested in exploring respite services as a career opportunity.’’

Blanchette said students in the NURS 370: Community and Public Health course maintain a particular focus on public policy and how it impacts the provision of respite care.

“One of the outcomes of this project is to create a better understanding of who needs respite care, what services are available to support those people and to identify any gaps in delivery of services,’’ Blanchette said.

Blanchette further added that the respite program is filling a need statewide.

“In addition to preparing a nursing workforce to meet this need, the faculty members involved have participated in inter-professional meetings to enhance caregiver services throughout the state,’’ she said. “We have developed a web-based resource for all family caregivers, expanded awareness of the need for more respite support and identified disparities among those who need these services.’’

“Overall, this program is giving our students a better understanding of how hard and complicated caregiving can be and how, as nurses, they can be more supportive.’’