Life is sweet at home

How Support Groups Help Caregivers

Visit the Alzheimer’s Association website to learn more about support groups. Courtesy

Visit the Alzheimer’s Association website to learn more about support groups. Courtesy

A girlfriend of mine has a 91-year-old uncle who has been caring for his wife’s Alzheimer’s decline for nearly two decades. When she recently broke an arm, the uncle stayed with his wife at the rehab center 12 hours a day for three weeks.

Thankfully, when the wife got home he hired 24-hour, in-home care to help them navigate the rest of her recovery. After exhausting himself physically and mentally, he admitted that he must take better care of himself. He had also decided to join a support group.

Far from a “touchy-feely” guy, this stoic World War II veteran reported that his first support group was a huge relief. He learned that he is not the only one shouldering the enormous responsibility of caring for a loved one!

As someone intensely involved in providing quality in-home care to local families, I want to take a look at one very important part of the self-care equation – how support groups help senior caregivers. By tapping into other community members’ insights and experience, caregivers discover like my friend’s uncle that they are not alone and that groups offer the kind of healthy support we need, especially in times of stress.

Why do we need support groups?

Sharing problems and tips helps other caregivers. Courtesy

Sharing problems and tips helps other caregivers. Courtesy

It is simple why caregivers need support groups. The most common and obvious reason is that caregivers are often isolated and overwhelmed caring for their loved one. They need a place to unburden themselves, to share with people in “the same boat,” and garner advice and encouragement.

Newcomers to support groups quickly see that many boomers and younger people are already taking care of an elder – it is simply what is happening. Indeed, in the United States, there are about 15 million people caring for someone with dementia.

Benefits of Support Groups

Many people benefit from support groups.

Many people benefit from support groups.

In their article “Choosing the Right Caregiver Support Group, Llardo and Rothman cut to the chase, “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.”

An MIT blog describes the benefits of friends and community groups in similar terms. The authors write: “Securing support from other family members, friends and community groups is essential. Caregiving is not an activity to be done alone. Joining a support group is not for everyone, but it is an option some caregivers find helpful. In these kinds of groups caregivers can exchange information about resources, and point each other toward organizations that have been particularly helpful.”

They note that support groups can also encourage self-care, and help caregivers understand it is not selfish to care for their own needs. They can help caregivers cope with both the emotional and physical consequences of caregiving by teaching stress management techniques and encouraging exercise.

Also, there are many kinds of support groups. Some are run by assisted living or memory care communities, some by caregivers and some are mentored by trained professionals. For more information about finding a support group in Washington state, please contact your local Family Caregiver Support Program.

How to Select a Support Group

Here are some of the suggestions given by Llardo and Rothman  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.

Other Ways to Nurture Support

According to the Alzheimer’s Association, there are many other ways besides support groups to nurture care for the caregiver. Here is a shortened version of its suggestions.

It’s important to plan a support network as early as possible:

Ask for help. It’s important to reach out to other family members, friends, or volunteer organizations to help with the daily burden of caregiving. When someone offers to help, let them. Caregivers who take regular time away not only provide better care, they also find more satisfaction in their caretaking roles.

Learn or update caregiving skills.  Learn all you can about symptoms, treatment, and behavior management. As the disease progresses and challenges change, you’ll need to update your skillset and find new ways of coping.

Join a support group. You’ll find that you’re not alone and you’ll be able to learn from the experiences of others who have faced the same challenges. They understand your feelings of isolation, fear, and hopelessness.

Learn how to manage stress.  To combat the stress of caregiving, you need to activate your body’s natural relaxation response through techniques such as deep breathing, meditation, rhythmic exercise, or yoga. They will boost your mood and energy levels.

Make use of available resources. There are a wealth of community and online resources to help you prioritize your efforts and provide effective care. Start by finding your local Alzheimer’s Association office.

Plan for your own care. Visit your doctor for regular checkups and pay attention to the signs and symptoms of excessive stress. Take time away from caregiving to maintain friendships, social contacts, professional networks, and pursue activities that bring you joy.

Does your support group help you navigate the caregiver role?