Fresh Take On Caring for Yourself (Episode 85)
Health and fitness coach Jenn Abbenhaus felt she already had an unusual sensitivity to the needs of her clients with family caregiver responsibilities – and then she became a caregiver for her own grandfather. In this episode, Jenn and host Kay Coughlin get real about taking care of yourself. Even when there’s so much pressure to feel guilty if you’re not focusing 100% of your efforts on being a caregiver.
As always, you can expect real talk with no judgment, no guilt and no pressure!
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Transcript of episode is below.
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Do you need to find a way to get some rest and take control of your own life again? You can, even if you believe that you can't possibly take care of yourself when the people around you need you so much!
Transcript: Jenn Abbenhaus – Fresh Take on Caring for Yourself (Episode 85)
Hi there. I’m your host, Kay Coughlin, and you are listening to From One Caregiver to Another. I am a life coach for family caregivers and sandwich family caregivers like me, who want to get some rest and feel less alone. I taught myself how to navigate all of my responsibilities and get into the mindset I need so that I can set boundaries, have self-compassion and prioritize myself. So that my needs get met, too. And that’s what I help my clients do. And if we can do it, I know it’s possible for you too.
Kay: Welcome to the podcast today. I am so excited to have with me today as my guest, Jenn Abbenhaus. Jenn reached out to me, I don’t know, a number of months ago, just because she wanted to talk about being a caregiver and what it’s like to be people who want to serve caregivers who want to elevate caregivers, help caregivers live better lives.
Not help people be better caregivers. But people who happen to have caregiver responsibilities live fuller, happier, more whole lives. And so Jenn and I got to be friends that way. I’ve got a little bit of a bio here for you that I want to read for you. Jenn is actually a former engineer. Computer engineer, electrical engineer, what kind of engineer, Jenn?
Jenn: I graduated structural engineering. And then about a year here in, maybe, I started working for a civil engineering firm. So I did that for about three to four years before really. It was just the big housing market crash in 2008 and shifted gears to becoming a personal trainer and health coach.
Kay: Okay. So Jenn began her career as an engineer and then became a personal trainer and a health coach. Most recently, she served as a caregiver for her own grandfather. And will hear a little bit more about that in a bit. And what Jenn told me is that it’s just her latest experience that opened her eyes to the unique challenges of caregivers, being a caregiver, what that means in our lives.
She’s passionate about making sure that people with caregiver responsibilities are maintaining their own health and their own wellbeing so that they can fully show up for their own lives. So I’m sure if you’re listening to this and you’ve heard other episodes of the podcast, you can already tell that Jenn and I are very like-minded and I’m thrilled to have her here with me.
Thank you so much, Jenn, for being here.
Jenn: Yes. Thank you so much for inviting me. I appreciate the opportunity and look forward to our conversation today.
Kay: I really think we can’t hear enough from people who like to see caregivers as that being just one role in our lives. That we are whole people who happen to have caregiver responsibilities too. So thanks for sharing that with me, for sharing that mindset with me.
Will you start out here by telling us a little bit about how you work with family caregivers now?
Jenn: So I am looking to work with family caregivers online. And I actually launched in December. I launched my very first online program and we use a dedicated app that helps track kind of habits and conversations and information and things that we’re working on.
And then we use some coaching calls. So this can be done virtually remotely, kind of wherever you are. And I had a cohort of about five people that I launched this program with, and it was phenomenal.
In fact, one of my clients, I had actually worked with her before, she was able to transition from being a caregiver and being stressed out and just feeling like it was all on her. To we were able to help her actually maintain some boundaries to maintain a sense of wellbeing, make sure that she’s focused on just a few things that will help her feel like she’s still in control. And they’ve now recently transitioned her parents into a assisted living facility and watching her through this whole process, December through to today, has been so amazing because like she is the, she would be like the ideal.
She didn’t lose herself, she didn’t lose her health. She figured out how to work with her sisters and her family and conversations, and she also worked with another therapist, uh, that helped her as well. So she had a great team around her.
That’s how I work with caregivers is we just connect virtually and online and try to solve the problems that’s going on because every caregiver’s situation is very different from the conversations they need to have with their family, where their loved ones are at when they finally step into the caregiver role. You know, how do we, how do we set a foundation for ourselves so that we can show up for all of our life?
Kay: Well, one of the things I like to say is how can we navigate all of that? And so that it’s, we don’t have to handle all of it, but, you know, be aware of all those different roles and, and, uh, manage them. Some on our own. Some with help. You know, just live our lives with some choices about how we navigate all of our different identities and all of our different responsibilities.
Jenn: Yes, absolutely.
Kay: Would you be willing to tell us a little bit about what your caregiving experience was like with your grandfather?
Jenn: Mm-hmm yeah, absolutely. I actually feel like my experience with becoming a caregiver was like trying to walk into a fire hose and drink from it. At the same time, like I just felt pelted constantly. I felt like I couldn’t get enough information. I couldn’t get enough. It just wasn’t soaking in. Everything was so fast and so hard. I just, I was overwhelmed.
So he was in the hospital for about two weeks. And when he came home, I drove up just thinking I would kind of lend a hand for a couple of days, and quickly realized that that wasn’t going to be the case.
I ended up staying for the whole week trying to sort out his meds, because he’s a diabetic – was a diabetic – and um, he was really good about tracking food, tracking numbers, giving insulin. He was still on the old system of pricking his finger and, and needles and things like that. He was really good at that.
And after he came out of the hospital, he was none of that. And it was so hard. So like he’s on 17 different medications, trying to figure out how that all works, what the medications are for, getting him to the plethora of doctor’s appointments that he had getting out of the hospital.
Navigating how slow things move, yet how fast it comes at us. Like, you couldn’t get him to move fast. Like the, his, his whole stuff was kind of on his time. But everything around him, you know, all of the doctors that you’re talking to, the medications, the visits, that was moving at the speed of light, it felt like.
So I was the caregiver for about three months and I would travel most weeks, um, from typically from Monday to Wednesday and I would stay and then my mom or somebody else would go through the weekend.
I just tried not to leave him home for too long. And then there were, there were times where I would be gone for a week and I, and thankfully I had clients, I was a personal, am a personal trainer. And because of COVID I was training most everybody virtually. So I was able to do some of that while I was there and they were all so generous and so, so caring during that whole time.
And so I would travel back, meet my in-person clients, try to be with my family here. And then I would go to Wyoming, which is a, was a four and a half, five hour drive, one way. And, I have the numbers, I think I spent like 31 or 32 days there in over a three month period.
Okay. So it was a lot and it was, I am so incredibly like in awe that I got to have the opportunity because having that time with my grandpa was fantastic. You know, we got to sit, just kind of hang out and you know, we had some conversations that never would’ve happened if I hadn’t have showed up.
Then it was also a struggle because my grandma didn’t want us there. She fought it every step of the way. And oh gosh, sleepless nights and no showers. And anyway, I could go on, but three months later he passed away on Easter Sunday. Now, now we’re here.
Kay: And this was last year. 2021? Okay. You used the word self-care. When you talked about what you do now with caregivers, what you want to do and are trying to do with caregivers, what was your self-care like for you when you were helping to take care of your grandfather?
Jenn: Oh, so I actually want to start a little side tangent. I don’t love the word “self-care.”
Kay: I don’t love it either!
Jenn: But I haven’t, I haven’t figured out what to replace it with. Like how to yes, define it. Because, I mean, self-care is a given, right? It’s like breathing. We don’t need to put a focus on it. There’s just, I don’t know. I mean, we do need to put a focus on caring for ourselves. But anyway, so that word kind of like always kind of nods at me a little bit.
And so when I was caring for, when I was in Wyoming, it’s like I had two separate lives. When I was in Wyoming, I would literally, I would shower Sunday night.
I would show up to my clients Monday morning, drive to Casper, very little sleep, three to four hours a night, most nights, all pretty restless. I hardly ate. Honestly, I just, either I was just anxious or I didn’t feel like there was time. I didn’t know what to eat. Even as a coach, I was just like, what’s not going to make me run down. So I just didn’t eat.
So I would go the three days and then I would come back to Denver and my boyfriend would hand me a glass of wine and say, “go shower.” Oh, very lovingly . Um, eventually my routine, while I was in Wyoming. Really, I focused on getting my water. I know how important that that’s like my biggest number one for all my clients, myself. Like I want to get my water in, regardless of how many times I have to pee in a day.
I focused on getting my supplements because if I wasn’t eating, then I needed something to make sure that my cells were getting nutrition and making sure that I wasn’t getting run down further. From that perspective, I already knew I wasn’t sleeping. I already knew I wasn’t eating well. So probiotics and supplements filled that gap. And then I would actually try to get in breakfast and I would take a, just a shake because it was simple, easy water and protein powder.
Oh, one more. I made sure I washed my face morning and night because I felt like I could be a superhero if my face was clean. Like no shower, but if my face was clean, we were good. So that, that really became my routine in Wyoming.
And then when here in Denver, I tried to add in some movement. We have a Peloton and I would hop on. They weren’t crazy workouts. If I could get 15 minutes in maybe 20 minutes, most recovery rides, you know, my body just couldn’t handle anything super intense. It’s not the time, when you’re in the middle of all that.
So that was how I managed to take care of myself, how I managed to not get sick, um, and how I managed to actually survive the three months relatively unscathed, I think.
Kay: So you had a lot of self-awareness about how to take care of yourself going into this. Was it in any way difficult for you to manage to do it anyway?
Jenn: Hmm, absolutely. I mean, I’m a firm believer in practice, what you preach. And the reality is that we all know the basics of how to care for ourselves. So even though I knew what to do, I almost had to put all of that aside and look at what I could do.
What could I guarantee 80% of the time that I could get done consistently? Focusing on your health and wellbeing is all about consistency. It’s not about doing big things. It’s about doing little things consistently.
I was in that space where I just, I really had to push everything away and say, what can I do on a regular basis and feel successful at? Because once I felt successful, other little things would creep in. I might take the stairs more or I could take a deep breath and realize that I didn’t have to panic at this upcoming moment.
I didn’t beat myself up over missed meals, or if I ate chips, you know, like the rest of it just kind of went away, if I could just focus on those few things. Then I felt successful.
And I think that’s important to recognize that just because we know what to do doesn’t mean that we’re going to be able to do it given any situation.
Kay: Was there a mindset that you had that allowed you to, I guess, find success, even in the middle of everything you were going through? Because it sounds like you had to define success differently than you typically would have.
Jenn: I’ve been a trainer since 2008, but I actually taught back in college. I taught step aerobics, which kind of started me down this path and I missed step aerobics so much.
Kay: I took step aerobics in college too. I remember it. It was a great, it was a great program. I, I remember that myself.
Jenn: So fun. But I think in the fitness, the, the health industry, like this whole umbrella of an industry has this idea of what success looks like. It’s you should be eating a certain way. You should look a certain way. You should. Should, right? Like should, is the, it’s a terrible word.
Kay: Terrible. I could not agree more self-care and should! We need to abolish those. Somehow or replace them, Jenn. I’m with you.
Jenn: Yeah, I think I have successfully helped a lot of my clients achieve what they want to achieve.
My in person, clients are typically 60 plus. I actually worked with somebody who is 89 and 90, and their goal is just to be, I know isn’t that amazing? Their goal is just to be functional, right. They want to be able to live their life. They want to go out for walks. They want to be able to get groceries. They want to be able to get up and down off the toilet. Off the floor, you know, if they fall, which we all fall.
So trying to take that step back and realizing that, you know, this definition of success is whatever I want to make it to be. It’s whatever my clients want it to be like, what is it you want to do day to day?
How do you want to feel day to day? That’s the definition of success, is breaking that noise away. What can’t I control and saying, what can I control? And when I’ve done that well, and I’ve done that consistently, then that to me is success.
Kay: Well, it really sounds to me like what you were doing, Jenn, was reminding yourself of who you were and finding ways to still be Jenn in the middle of what was a difficult and challenging situation. You were reminding yourself of your own identity. You weren’t letting that be completely dissolved into everything that was going on around you. And that is something that I see happen with many, many, many caregivers. And it’s happened to me at times. We completely lose all sense of who we are.
And so what I find fascinating there, and also something to be celebrated is that you, you did find a way to remind yourself of who you are at your core.
What do you think gets in the way of caregivers taking care of their own wellbeing?
Jenn: So I think you’re kind of bombarded with this noise. Like if you don’t feel good, if you are starting to go down the rabbit hole of needing medications, because you’re, you’re using all of yourself, your energy, your resources to care for someone else.
If you’re starting to go into that space, there’s so much guilt to that, that I can’t take care of myself, but I can take care of someone else. I mean, why should it be so hard for me to take care of myself?
There’s so much guilt in that we are our harshest critics. We judge ourselves, we feel guilty. We feel shame. We feel like we just can’t, we can’t do it all. And, and there’s no reason to have to do it all.
Becoming a caregiver often means that we are living in emergency mode, so that can get really frustrating. That sense of uncertainty in your scheduling. You know, so I would think, this is my kind of theory, is that caregivers then kind of throw their hands up and just think “why bother right now? Why bother focusing on my health? Why bother focusing on trying to find a coach or a trainer who can understand me and my situation, it’s just going to add more stress to my already high level.”
And I have an interesting story. I remember working with a coach when I was trying to get everything online. I was trying to tell him, I’m like, “no, you don’t get it. Like there is caregiver stuff. Like you just don’t get it.” And he’s like, “well, that’s just an excuse. You know, that’s, I’m a husband and I have a job and I have two mentorship programs and I’m a dad.” And he is listing off all these things. And then he is like, “I, you know, I can prioritize and I can figure this out.”
And I’m like, “you just don’t understand. There’s a whole emotional level to what caregiving brings to the table that you, we can’t get rid of.”
So how do we make change given that perspective? And I didn’t even understand it until I became a caregiver.
Case in point, I actually worked with a client who was caring for her mom, and I think I’ve always been blessed with a high level of patience and, and understanding. So I think I took a little of that for granted when I was working with her. Because if she had to cancel or talk to her mom while she was training with me, you know, we made it work. We adjusted time, we shifted, we moved things around, but I, there was something in the back of my head that said, “you know, maybe how do we make it work for you? And, and is it really that hard?”
And the answer to one is, we just kind of figured it out. But the answer it to two is yes, it’s really hard. And I now fully understand what she was going through and to her credit, I mean, she found time to work out with me twice a week. We worked on a couple habits that she focused on each week and we let the rest go. And she’s actually still a client of mine today. Her mom passed away a number of years ago.
Kay: Well, you really hinted at something that I do think is very hard to describe. What about this? I’ll interpret what you said as emotional weight, the intense emotions. Why do you think that is an obstacle to personal wellbeing for people who have caregiver responsibilities?
Jenn: What popped into my mind is when the pandemic hit, there were so many trainers saying, well, now you have no excuses on time. You’re working from home. You don’t have travel time as a person who wanted to get healthy, you know, you might be telling yourself, well, there’s no reason I, I can’t work out or I can’t eat healthier.
Like right now, like this is, I have time. But what we know, what really happened is that all of that time was now basically taken up by the conversations that were happening in our head, the stress around the world. The stress that was, we were constantly in high alert and there was no space, or let’s say there was very little space to try to make some of the health changes that you would think you’d be able to easily do.
Like you can work out at home, there’s a ton of YouTube videos out there of home workouts. It was an option, but realistically, all of that energy and all of that mental brain capacity was being taken up by something else. That is, to me, what happens to a caregiver is that when they step into that role, there’s so much more mental energy, physical energy, that high alert, it takes its toll and you don’t even recognize it because you’re constantly in this fight or flight space.
And I just like, I don’t know where the time went and it’s, it’s just taken up by all that mental weight, emotional weight that you might say. I just think that it’s, it just takes up so much more energy than we realize when you become a caregiver.
Kay: What I hear there is that we don’t understand what’s going on. We literally don’t understand what’s going on in the mind in the body. We do not understand that connection, that, that problem. And also we discount it and we dismiss it.
What is something that you think people get wrong about wellbeing when it comes to having caregiver responsibilities?
Jenn: So I think the thing that people miss is that we’re looking for the magic pill. We’re looking for the magic program, the one size fits all, and that’s what’s often being marketed and in our face, it’s something that’s going to instantly or 12 weeks, solve a problem. So I think that’s, that’s in general. That’s whether you’re a caregiver or not. I think that messaging, like we’re looking for that external validation and verification, that what we do that, what you’re telling me to do will get me to my goal.
And kind of going back to that side tangent you had earlier, like we dismiss how it feels to our body.
So that could be cutting out an entire food group category, maybe they cut out fat or perhaps they cut out carbohydrates. And that feels terrible to some people.
Kay: It feels terrible, Jenn. Terrible. It feels awful.
Jenn: Now there’s some variations in there. When you start tuning into your body, you will learn what makes you feel good. Like. aat a bag of chips and it might taste good in the moment, but it’s probably not going to make you feel good.
And I think the same thing goes when you’re a caregiver, because you’ve got so much focus on somebody else you’ve just forgotten to tune into your body and what it needs. So you’re still looking for that external program verification. Validation that if I do this, I will feel better.
And so many programs out there are so black and white and consuming. I mean, meal prepping, it’s touted as this amazing thing. Meal prepping is, I personally as a trainer, it doesn’t work for me. I don’t meal prep. I have clients that find it very helpful.
We miss that when it comes to caring for ourselves is, is tuning into ourselves. And what is actually going to make us feel best in the long run?
Kay: Are we being taught to rely on what other people tell us should work. Maybe even harder, saying to all the people who are trying to tell you what to do, “Thank you. But no, thank you. I know what works for me.”
Caregivers are not encouraged to do that, by the way. Caregivers are not encouraged to say, “I know how to take care of myself. I know what works for me.” We’re not supposed to focus on ourselves period.
So, is it that we are substituting these programs for our own wisdom about ourselves?
Jenn: Yeah, I do think so. Absolutely. And, and I also think that that’s what leads to. That burnout or that overwhelm because they don’t think somebody’s going to understand their situation. I look at the variety that’s out there and I think of my own experience there is no way, there is no way I could have decided to jump on any of those bandwagons.
And here’s the other thing to think about is that no matter where you are in your caregiver journey, you know, you probably want to feel your best. And whatever that looks like, whether it’s just wanting to have more energy, weight loss, whatever the goal is. And so, if you put that from a caregiver standpoint, there’s so many other things going on, that trying to feel your best just needs to be dialed into some few basic things.
Now, those might build and snowball over time, but you’re only focusing on one or two pieces. You actually, instead of focusing on the goal, “I want to lose 10 pounds” or, “I want to be energized all day.” You just need to dissect that and break that down, deconstruct it into what are the one or two things that you know, that you can do instead of trying to focus on that all or nothing.
Kay: I’m thinking back now in my head to I’ll say wellness programs or fitness programs that I did, you know, even when my kids were little and I had a job. And everything was pretty predictable back then. There was actually a healthy dose of built in guilt and shame in a lot of those wellness programs. Like if you can’t manage to do this three times a week, don’t bother.
And back then, I think I believed that was okay to do. I no longer believe that. That’s not okay to do, because it’s not up to anybody else to judge that for me. And I wish I’d known that all those years ago, I still wouldn’t have probably enjoyed those programs. Uh, and I also wouldn’t have shamed myself for you know, making an investment in a program that I didn’t follow through on.
That is definitely not something caregivers need, is more guilt or shame coming at us.
Jenn: Definitely not.
Kay: When you think about the caregivers who you’ve worked with in the past, and the ones you’re working with now. What’s a mindset that you think would be helpful for people with caregiver responsibility so that they actually do care for their own health and wellbeing.
Jenn: I think the first mindset is just to acknowledge, and even embrace, that you’re a caregiver. I didn’t know what that word was because caregiving, as we know is not really talked about, it’s kind of, you know, shuffled under the rug and, and it’s just the way that it is, which is not okay. We don’t talk about it.
I mean, there’s friends that I have that I didn’t realize that they were going through some similar experiences with their parents and how isolated they felt until we’d had the conversation.
That doesn’t mean that if I embrace it, if I own it, that doesn’t mean that I have to go all in, as far as all the tasks, all the things.
Now you can start really looking at all of the activities and all of the responsibilities. Now you can take a look. How do you fit in the things that you want to fit in to make sure that you’re caring for yourself, caring for the other things that you want to care for friends, family career, and what can that, what does that look like?
Kay: So I know that you’re still really developing your program for how you want to work with family caregivers moving forward. And I really want to honor that for you, Jenn, that you are at the beginning of something that hasn’t been mapped out before. You’re pioneering, I’m pioneering. There’s a way that people have served caregivers in the past that didn’t center the needs of caregivers, that put the people we care for in the center of the conversation.
And honestly, culturally, you know, we come last. So, thank you for being brave enough to give something a try for seeing a need for being willing to do it differently. And from a place of understanding the situation of the family caregiver, knowing that every single situation is different, and coming from a place of not judging people for the fact that typical programs, which might not even work that well for anybody, but typical programs definitely aren’t going to be a starting place for them.
So, thank you for being at the beginning of that journey. Given that you’re at the beginning of that, and I know you’ve been a personal trainer for a long time. How can people find you? How can people reach out to you?
Jenn: I’m actually on Facebook, that’s likely the best way. And I have put together a Facebook group that is part of, I think, needs to be part of the bigger conversation. My goal is actually to try reaching people in the very early stages of becoming a caregiver, like when they start realizing that their parents are missing steps. Whether it’s something at home or, or verbiage, what, in that very beginning, where as kids, we get a little concerned for our parents.
And then I also want to open up the conversation for our parents to feel okay with not being okay. I want to dive into that conversation and reach out to those.
I think the reason my, I have a client that was so successful was that we had already had the conversation. We were already talking about those things. And then when she, when she was able to participate in this initial program, it just, it built momentum for her. And helped kind of ease into this next phase.
I can share my email address. Anytime you can have a conversation with me via email and, uh, I’ll be here for you.
Kay: And I will make sure to put all of those links into the show notes for this episode.
In terms of accessibility, I just want to remind anybody who’s listening. I do have a full transcript of every single episode, so that if for some reason, listening to a podcast, doesn’t work for you, you can go take a look at the transcript. It’s not the same as listening, that’s for sure. But if that would be helpful to you, if you go to the show notes, you will find a link to the full transcript for this episode. And the links to those transcripts are on the page for each episode as you go through. So you can always go through and look for those transcripts.
Jenn, is there something that you would like to leave us with today as we finish up here?
Jenn: I think that at the end of the day, know that, especially as a caregiver, this is a season. It could be a week. It could be three months. It could be six months. It could be five years. Understand that this is a season.
And so really, if you can take that step back and recognize it, work on just a few things to build a foundation. And then when your caregiving role has ended and your life looks very different, that’s the time to start building momentum and accelerate.
Then, because you’ve already got the foundation, you’ve already been able to get a bit of focus on yourself, make sure that you are surviving and feeling your best at that time. Just know that it’s a time. It’s a season, do the best that you can and, and you’re doing amazing. And we’re all here for you.
Kay: Thank you, Jenn. I’m just so glad that you were willing to be here with me today to be on the podcast. So thank you for sharing your experiences with us. And we’re going to be keeping in touch and I’m going to be right here on the sidelines, cheering you on with your heart, for serving caregivers. Thank you.
Jenn: Yes. Thank you. Thank you for the opportunity. And yes, let’s pave the way.
Kay: If you liked this episode, you have to go check out my monthly membership for family caregivers who want to get some rest and feel less alone. It’s the place for emotionally-safe community, brave self-development and always self-compassion. You can find a link to it in the show notes and on my website at Facilitator On Fire dot net. And that is Facilitator On Fire dot net. If you are looking to connect with me, the best place to find me is in my free Boundaries Community. And I would love to hear from you. I can’t wait to be with you again in the next episode, From One Caregiver to Another.
Kay Coughlin, business coach, advocate for family caregivers, and CEO of Facilitator On Fire, is on a mission to help small business leaders and solopreneurs re-ignite their passion for their businesses.
In every forum she can find, she shouts that it's OK for every human to earn a living, set and enforce boundaries around their bodies, thoughts, feelings and actions. You can join Kay's free, private online community to talk about boundaries here.
Kay also teaches about emotional labor, how to rest, and Human Giver Syndrome, and is the host of the "From One Caregiver to Another" podcast and author of "From One Caregiver to Another - Overcoming Your Emotional Grind."
Kay is well-known for her public speaking on boundaries and self-care.
Facilitator on Fire is a subsidiary of Donor Relations Mindset LLC, which Kay founded in 2015. She lives with her husband and children in central Ohio, and is the primary caregiver for her own mother, who lives right next door. Kay can be found on LinkedIn and Instagram.
Copyright 2022. All rights reserved, Julia Kay Coughlin and Facilitator On Fire.
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