More than 40 million family caregivers across the U.S. provide unpaid assistance to aging parents, spouses and other loved ones. As demanding and emotionally taxing as it is, a caregiver’s work must often be added onto other responsibilities, leaving little time for one to think of themselves. This is why finding effective coping strategies is vital to avoid the common pitfalls of isolation, stress, burnout and deteriorating mental health.
Although being in a caregiving role does give us the chance to spend time with someone close to us and to show them our support in a meaningful way, caretakers are also very likely to run into emotional and medical challenges. From budgetary constraints to emotional stress, caring for an aging loved one can stretch you beyond what you think you’re capable of handling. It’s important for caregivers to remember that they’re far from alone in what they’re facing, and that there is a wealth of resources available to help them cope.
A 2016 University of Pittsburgh study that drew from the experiences of 91 caregiving families shows that caregivers with a greater sense of self-efficacy (the belief that you can handle a situation) were less likely to be depressed. While you know better than anyone the specific problems you and your loved one must address, you can still learn a lot from other caregivers and experts. Having access to the insights of people who understand your situation can make a major difference in your life, and in the lives of your dependents.
Caregiver Support Groups: 7 Ways They Can Help
Being a caregiver can feel a lot like being a lone ranger. We know other caregivers are “out there,” but our day-to-day lives don’t allow us to meet with others who are facing the same challenges we face. Attending caregiver support group meetings is known to relieve tension and reduce the threat of becoming overwhelmed. Dr. Nicole Rochester, CEO of Your GPS Doc and former caregiver to her aging father, attests that “Joining a caregiver support group is one of the best things a family caregiver can do.”
Here are seven reasons why experts say joining a caregiver support group can be one of your greatest personal resources:
1. Having an appropriate social outlet
“By design, human beings are social creatures,” says Rebecca Throop of Torchlight, a caregiving support platform. “We mentally and emotionally require connection and support. We derive value from passing on our shared stories and experiences,” says Throop, a family caregiver herself. “Support groups have always provided a safe place for individuals to feel part of.”
These types of groups, whether online or off, connect you with like-minded people who have shared experiences, making them a good place to vent, seek support during hard times and find long-term friends who are also family caregivers.
2. Receiving validation that your needs matter too
Rebecca Rushing, a registered nurse and director of client care at FirstLight Home Care, says that support groups “provide validation and encouragement that it’s okay to take care of yourself.”
“One thing many caregivers tend to neglect is their own health,” says Rushing. But being surrounded by experienced caregivers lets you take a break from the activity directed toward keeping your loved one safe and spend some time on yourself. People who are dealing with similar struggles can also support each other in taking a break and seeking temporary respite from caregiving stressors.
3. Finding strength in difficult times
At times, caregiving can seem like an impossible task; there are good days and bad days. When things are especially rough, says Social Gerontologist Benjamin Surmi, “Spending time with fellow caregivers can provide individuals the strength to go on.”
Sometimes, simple recognition that you’re facing challenging tasks from those who truly understand what you’re going through can provide the foundation you need to weather the next day or week. Caregiver support groups include people outside of your own family or social system who can provide an ear to listen or a shoulder to cry on, providing much-needed support without causing you to worry about burdening family members who may be dealing with the same issues.
4. Being part of a safe and confidential community
“The support group . . . is confidential,” says Surmi. “That means you can share with the group something you may have said to your loved one and later regretted. In a caregiver group, you can talk about that and be accepted. What you say in the group stays in the group.”
Confidentiality is usually a practice of any caregiver support group and is typically enforced by official groups led by a professional. If you’re part of a support group on Facebook or other online platform, make sure you understand confidentiality rules before you share things that you may not want repeated outside of that forum.
5. Getting practical advice and information
In addition to connecting you with people who understand what you’re going through, caregiver support groups also provide a valuable resource. “You can learn from other caregivers on how they manage some of the same types of issues you face,” says Colorado-based psychologist Dr. Wyatt Fisher.
Some practical advice you might get from others in a support group can include:
- Recommendations for healthcare providers or other professionals in your area
- Product recommendations that can make your life as a caregiver easier
- Firsthand tips to deal with specific caregiver challenges that non-caregivers may not even realize exist
6. Preventing caregiver burnout
“Caregivers are less likely to experience complete burnout from caregiving when they attend support groups regularly,” says Stacey Barcomb, a care navigator at the Alzheimer’s Disease Caregiver Support Initiative. “It can be helpful to meet with familiar faces on a regular basis to discuss hardships and blessings of caregiving.”
Research shows that the average duration of an individual’s role as a caregiver is about four years, so if you’re in it for the long haul, finding ways to stave off burnout is crucial.
7. Gaining improved mental health
Finally, Dr. Rochester notes that joining a caregiver support group can help improve your overall mental health.
“While caring for an elderly family member can be incredibly rewarding, it tends to be emotionally draining,” she says. “Inevitably, as family caregivers become engrossed in the day-to-day tasks of caring for their loved one, they become progressively more isolated from friends and other family members. There is often an overwhelming feeling of being alone. Isolation can lead to depression.”
Taking time to step outside of your caregiver role to find support and make connections with others is essential to managing your own mental and physical health. Caregivers should never feel guilty about taking this time for themselves. One key concept to remember is that the healthier you are, the better equipped you’ll be to help your loved one stay healthy.
Koelsch Communities hosts and facilitates Caregiver Support Groups across the country. To learn more or join a Support Group, contact a Koelsch Community near you.