Caretaking: Support Groups?

I’ve always been a believer in support groups–in theory. They work for many people in many guises, from AA to informal “koffee klotches,” from groups where cancer patients share information and strength to psychotherapy groups. I was in a support group years ago that made an enormous difference in my life. But when it came to support groups for caregivers… Well…

The reality is, I’ve always been a loner rather than a joiner. The song sung by Groucho Marx as the improbable college president in “Horse Feathers” kind of expressed me: “Whatever it is, I’m against it.” Shortly after joining any group, rather a support one or a planning committee or board of directors, I tend to focus on what makes me different from the other members, not what unites us. And to some degree, that’s exactly what happened when I joined–or tried to join–support groups for caregivers.

In one case, I started attending a group for Alzheimer’s patients caregivers. It would have seemed a good fit, since it was close to my home, run by my religious group, and attended by people, all of whom understood the ravages and despair of dementia. But quickly I realized that I was the only one in the group doing long-distance care, and the only one facing caregiving more or less alone–the group was composed of mothers and grown children caring for a spouse/father or mother. Besides, the leader was unable to “structure” the group so that people stayed on topic.

The second was a phone support group. Not only did my mind wander–the same as it has done during phone writing classes-but I became hugely impatient listening to other people speaking about caregiving. I’ve always been an empathic person–I think!–and a good listener. But the group members seemed to be droning on and trying to dominate the conversation. It’s really a dilemma–it takes a caregiver to understand another caregiver, but if everyone is trying to talk at once, how can anyone understand anyone?

That said, caregivers can definitely benefit from support groups. These groups can provide encouragement, information, an opportunity to reflect and vent, and yes–support. The problem is finding a group that: a) fits into your schedule; b) matches you with people you can relate to; c) has a leader who encourages openness and mutual respect but also knows how to cut people off firmly but politely when they speak “too long” or meander; and ) isn’t, hopefully too far. This may be especially difficult in long-distance-caregiving situations, since the logical thing would be to attend such a group near the resources you’re using. That’s a tough one. But overall, given that all the above “conditions” are met, and even if you have to “compromise” on one or two, it is definitely worth at least trying out a support group. You’ll find yourself a better listener, and may even walk away with the liberating feeling that you’re not so bad off–cause others have it much worse than you do.

There are people who continue with such groups even after the care receiver has passed on. There’s nothing quite like not feeling alone in a situation that very much feels alone.