Many caregivers have found that talking to other people who are also caregivers, and can understand their experiences and feelings about caregiving, can be an extremely powerful method of coping (Nahls, 2001). Support groups can provide an opportunity for people with common experiences and problems to give emotional support to one another, as well as to share information and to learn skills from eachother (Llardo & Rothman, 1999). One of the main benefits of a support group is that it helps caregivers to see that they are not alone in their experience, as others are having some very similar experiences. This can make it easier to continue to do what it takes to care for their loved one (Barg, 2001).
As a caregiver, support groups can offer you the opportunity to improve your coping skills, to learn specific skills that are helpful in managing your caregiving responsibilities, and to hear experiences from others that might provide you with solace when you are feeling stressed or feeling at your wit's end with the caregiving experience (Llardo & Rothman, 1999).
There are many different kinds of support groups and it is important to find the one that fits for you. Anyone can create a support group, so groups can vary widely in content, approach, and quality. You may need to attend the group to see what it is really like before making the decision whether this is the right one for you. Also, it is important to try to keep an open mind and not decide immediately if this is the right one for you. It might be a good idea to give the meeting three tries before making a decision about it (Brown, 2004).
Here are some of the suggestions given by Llardo and Rothman (1999) for what to look for when choosing a support group:
- Look for a group led by a person with professional credentials. The skills and training of the group leader can make the difference between a positive and negative group experience.
- Look for a group that has been in existence for some time. Groups that are not run well will tend to dissolve quickly, while well-run groups constantly attract new members.
- Look for a group with clear goals. The group you join should have a clear overall focus.
- Understand who the group is for. Some groups are general in nature catering to the needs of all caregivers, in general, while there are also groups that are specifically geared for caregivers of brain-injured individuals.
There are benefits to both types of groups, so your decision about which is the right type should be based on what feels most beneficial to you.
- It is important to realize that a support group is not intended to provide psychotherapy for its members. The goal of a support group is to provide support for issues affecting caregivers, not to focus on issues that are more personal in nature. A competent group leader should recognize those group members in need of more intensive psychological help or support and make the appropriate referrals for them. These group members should not be allowed to take over the focus of the group.
- When choosing a group, decide whether or not the format of the group feels right to you. This is based on your own personal preference. Here are some possible formats:
- There is a pre-set number of sessions and a specific topic chosen for each session.
- The group may be open-ended, less formal, and focused on sharing the emotional experiences of the caregivers. Group members are encouraged to share their experiences and members provide emotional support for each other.
- In some groups, once the group is formed, no new members are allowed in. Other groups may allow anyone to join at any time.
- Groups vary in how often they meet: weekly, bi-weekly, or monthly. So you need to decide what frequency is most convenient and helpful to you.
Here are some other things to look for, as suggested by Llardo and Rothman (1999). For these criteria, you need to trust your own gut feelings.
Do you enjoy attending the group and do you feel that you are receiving benefit from it or do you leave feeling more upset than when you arrived? If it is the latter, then this support group may not be the right one for you.
When you share your feelings in the group, do you feel that they are accepted, or do you feel awkward afterward due to the response of the leader or group members? Again, if it is the latter, then this support group may be the wrong one for you.
Is it comfortable to express negative feelings or are you made to feel guilty, weird, or "bad" for expressing such feelings? While, a support group should not be a "pity party", it should be a place where members feel comfortable expressing their emotions, both positive and negative.
Does the leader stay in control of the group discussions or does the discussion meander in every direction with nothing useful coming out of the session? Is one member allowed to dominate the group or to monopolize the time? A competent leader will exert enough control to focus the discussion in a logical direction and to give everyone a fair opportunity to speak, but not so much control that people feel intimidated.
Try not to be discouraged if the first support group that you try turns out to not be the right one for you. Be patient and keep trying other groups until you find the right group. Many support group members would say that this investment of time and energy is well worth it (Udoff, 2001).
Barg, G. (2001). The Fearless Caregiver: How to Get the Best Care for Your Loved One and Still Have a Life of Your Own. Capital Books, Inc.: Herndon, VA.
Brown, T. (2004). Support Systems: Connecting with Other Caregivers. Caring Connections Website.
Llardo, J. & Rothman, C. R. (1999). I'll Take care of You: A Practical Guide for Family Caregivers. New Harbinger Publications, Inc.:Oakland, CA.
Nahls, C. (2001). "Specialized Caregiving." In Barg, G., The Fearless Caregiver. Capital Books, Inc.: Herndon, VA.
Udoff, H. (2001). Alzheimer's Association - Massachusetts Chapter Newsletter, Vol. 19, Number 3.