When people suffer hardships, sharing the pain almost always helps. A support group is a gathering of individuals to explore a common cause or problem. Members of the group discuss their experiences, exchange information and provide encouragement and friendship. They also offer shoulders to lean on when times are tough and allow each other to express anger, frustration, resentment and other troubling emotions.
Above all, successful support groups ? also called self-help groups ? create an environment where people grappling with difficult issues feel understood and accepted by those in similar circumstances. As a caregiver you may need a support group, especially if you feel isolated, believe your situation is unique and think no one around you understands what you are going through.Support groups can offer caregivers:
Encouragement. Caregiving is a demanding task that can drain your emotional, physical and spiritual energy. Support groups provide a safe place to recharge your batteries.
Information. Support group members can glean ideas and suggestions from others in the trenches. Other caregivers are often the best source for helpful tips about community resources, medical developments, support services and other key issues.
Emotional support. Sometimes caregivers simply need to vent. Support groups provide a space to unload pent-up frustrations while others in similar circumstances empathize and counsel without judgment.
What should you look for in a support group?
Support groups cover a broad spectrum. Some may be only for people taking care of someone with a particular illness, such as Alzheimer?s, Parkinson?s or cancer. Others may be for anyone caring for a parent or anyone involved in long-distance caregiving.Some support groups are open-ended, with new people joining periodically. Others continue for a defined length of time ? 10 weeks or six months, for example ? and don?t admit new members after the first or second week. Some groups schedule regular lectures or presentations on topics of mutual interest. Others are less structured, with members offering the floor to those who request it.
Think about the kind of group you would prefer. You may need to check out several before settling on one that suits your purposes. To find out about support groups in your area, inquire at community centers, fraternal associations and religious organizations. Hospitals and nonprofit agencies associated with specific diseases or conditions also sponsor them. Check local Web sites, newspapers? community listings, classified ads or bulletin boards for privately organized support groups.
As you evaluate a support group, consider these qualities:
Comfort. Support groups are about relationships. Do you feel at ease with the people? Are they welcoming? Are smiles and hugs freely available? Or do you feel as though you?ve stepped into an refrigerator?
Convenience. Does the group meet at a time and place convenient to you? How far are you willing to drive? If you?re a morning person, does the group meet early enough in the evening for you to get home without falling asleep at the wheel?
Confidentiality. Does everything discussed stay within the group, or does information leak out? If you don?t feel safe, you?re likely to clam up ? which would defeat the purpose of joining.
Sometimes professionals ? social workers, therapists and nurses ? run support groups. Sometimes one group member takes charge, or leadership responsibilities rotate among the participants. All approaches have their advantages, but a designated leader can help keep the group productive and moving forward.Leading a support group is an emotional, draining and challenging task. A support group facilitator should show:
Empathy. An ability to sympathize deeply with others is a prerequisite. An empathetic leader will make people feel welcome and draw out even the most reluctant group member.
Poise. Those who feel comfortable in front of groups, articulate their feelings well and demonstrate grace under pressure can help sustain a group?s spirit in times of crisis.
Enthusiasm. People often share their darkest emotions and fears in support groups. Leaders who firmly believe in the goals and mission of the group will be the most successful in encouraging participants to speak openly. A sense of humor helps, too.
Focus. A good leader will have a sense of what members are feeling, where the group needs to go and how to guide discussions to get there.
Starting your own support group
If you can?t find a group to meet your needs, start one yourself. It?s not as difficult as it sounds. People who perceive a gap and are determined to fill it make the best support group founders. To organize a support group:
Start with a mission. Maybe you want to focus on serving caregivers taking care of people with dementia or caregivers coping with difficult family relationships. If you need a particular kind of support group, undoubtedly others do, too.
Locate others. When you have defined your target group, enlist the aid of doctors or hospitals to help you find other caregivers grappling with the same issues. Give the health care professionals your name and phone number and have them share that information with others in similar situations.
Advertise. Let the community know that the support group is available. Post notices on community bulletin boards. Many newspapers publish public service announcements free. Or try low-cost classifieds.
Find a meeting place. Churches, synagogues and other religious establishments often open their doors to support groups. So do hospitals, libraries and corporate conference rooms. Make sure the meeting place is accessible to all. If necessary, negotiate a price for renting the facility.
Decide whether to enlist a professional to lead the group. The leader could be a health care professional from a local agency, a therapist or someone with support group and caregiving experience.