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Training Veterans to Care for Themselves

A group of Veterans practice Tai Chi exercises with a woman leader.

Crane takes flight: Learning to come home to the body with mindful awareness.

by Hans Petersen, VA Staff Writer
Monday, April 15, 2013

Kristi Rietz helps Veterans living with chronic conditions — pain…illness…stress — to put healthy things back into their lives and not make their illness the center of their life.

She is an occupational therapist in the Wellness Program at the Middleton Memorial Veterans Hospital in Madison, Wis.

Kristi explains, “Wellness is approaching people as a whole person. What do they think would be a satisfying full life? We help people gain the skills they need to be able to do that. It’s approaching people from the perspective of what do they want out of life?”

Her Wellness Program calendar is full, with options for Veterans like the Eight-Week Wellness Series which includes Tai Chi Fundamentals), Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction, Positive Psychology and Wellness Recovery Action Planning where Veterans make a personal plan for their wellness and recovery.

Wellness Programs Help Relieve Stress

The outpatient Wellness Program provides training in natural stress relief and health improvement practices for Veterans and their families. Classes offer education and practice in stress management techniques that build focus, attention, and memory, as well as improved sleep, decreased stress, overall health, and increased well-being.

April is Occupational Therapy Month. Read more about VA Wellness Programs.

Kristi knows the Wellness approach works, saying, “It works for me!” But as she explains to Veterans new to the program, “It takes courage. It takes a commitment to practice self-care. We’re talking about changing habit patterns.

“That came up in a recent class. Someone said ‘Why should I be doing this? I really want to be home with my family and my children.’ Fortunately, other Vets will speak up and tell how it has really helped them.”

 …what she was learning was having such a profound and positive impact on her family 

Participants in her Wellness Program learn simple, effective, and powerful techniques to feel energized and focused, and how to reduce stress or pain. Recent research suggests that certain mind-body practices may be helpful for different medical conditions including: sleep disturbances, balance problems, low bone density, arthritis, hypertension, heart disease, Parkinson’s disease, chronic pain, fibromyalgia, breast cancer, addictions, obesity, fatigue, reduced strength, depression, anxiety, and PTSD.

An female Occupational Therapist raises the arms of a Veteran in a Tai Chi exercise.

Kristi Rietz practices Mindful Awareness with Veteran Karl Gutknecht: Practicing focused attention and postural alignment.

Kristi describes one example of how her Tai Chi Fundamentals classes helped a Veteran in pain.

“One young woman lived with great pain from a serious injury to her feet while she was in the military. After taking our courses, her life absolutely changed. Even her kids’ teachers asked her ‘What have you done? Your kids are just a joy to have in class now.’

“She was so excited because what she was learning was having such a profound and positive impact on her family. I love to hear those stories. It makes me feel very good. And I’m very happy to share these successes with other people.

Kristi knows the Wellness program is different for a lot of Veterans.

“We have referrals from the pain clinic. The doctor wants them to try a Wellness approach. But it’s human nature for some people to think, to hope, that some medical procedure or some kind of medicine will take their problem away.

“Sometimes, seeing others Veterans participating in one of our classes encourages them.”

A Veteran holds the arm of a female Occupational Therapist in a Tai Chi exercise.

Veteran Brendan Conaway learns from Kristi Rieitz how practicing mindful awareness positively impacts stress and pain management

Tai Chi One of Many Programs Helping Veterans

Kristi encourages Veterans to try the Tai Chi Fundamentals Program and Yoga classes, explaining, “Tai Chi and Yoga are mindfulness practices of being rather than doing. It’s a whole different way of approaching our bodies and our minds. I particularly find the Tai Chi Fundamentals program so helpful, because it trains focused attention, mindful awareness, active relaxation, and postural alignment in functional movement so the applications to daily living are inherent in the practice itself.

“That’s one of the most helpful things we can teach our Veterans. If something unpleasant is happening we have a tendency to want to avoid or ignore it. Tai Chi and Yoga help us learn how to stay with the experience.

“As soon as we can put that pause into our lives, we can actually stop and turn towards the experience and get really serious about it. You’ve already made a significant change.”

Kristi comes to her dedication from observing others caring for Veterans. “When I was looking for a new job experience, I was so impressed with the Veteran hospital clinicians I met, so amazed with their dedication and the hope they had for the people they were working with. I said I want to work with these people. And of course, the Veterans just won me over. The VA has provided such a wonderful opportunity to share practices that I have found to be so beneficial with Veterans and their families.”

Photos by Jeffrey Root, Senior Medical Photographer, Middleton Memorial Veterans Hospital, Madison, Wisconsin.