Over 34 million Americans provide unpaid care to an adult over 50, a number that is projected to grow steadily in the coming years. If you’re one of these family caregivers, you’re probably getting pulled in many directions and stretched thin. It can be stressful at best and feel downright impossible at worst.
When you’re feeling tired and overwhelmed from your caregiving duties, a support group may not be the first thing that comes to mind for some relief and self-care. There are many reasons you may feel hesitant. Maybe you assume they’re too “touchy-feely,” or you feel guilty about spending time away from your loved one or asking for help. Perhaps you feel uneasy about sharing personal information with people you don’t know.
Some of these hesitations may be because of misconceptions or simply being unaware of how support groups really work and their benefits. In this article, we’ll cover the basics of support groups and five reasons you should consider joining one.
How support groups work
First off, there are a wide variety of support groups you can join, either online or in-person. Many are specific to the condition your loved one is suffering from, such as dementia or cancer. But there are also groups that specialize in other ways. “Working Daughter,” “Caring for a Spouse with Dementia,” and VA caregiver support groups are just a few examples of niche groups that can help you better relate and connect to others through shared experiences and life stages.
Support groups are typically offered by a nonprofit advocacy organization, clinic, hospital, or community organization. But as more and more people connect online via social media, they also may be independent and run entirely by group members. These groups can vary in format and may include face-to-face meetings, virtual meetings, or online communities. They’re often led by a layperson who has experience in the specific condition, but can be led by a professional facilitator, like a nurse or social worker.
As you can see, there are many options to choose from when looking for a support group that fits you. Next, we’ll discuss what you can get out of it and why you should try it.
Benefits of support groups
- You’ll feel less lonely and isolated
It can feel like no one understands what you’re going through, but when you find the right support group, you’ll quickly realize you’re not alone–not by a long shot! Realizing that others are having similar experiences can help you feel more comfortable talking openly about your feelings. Having the freedom to express yourself freely without judgement can be a tremendous benefit.
As an added bonus, studies show that any kind of social interaction is good for your overall health. Many caregivers report having less time and motivation to socialize, so a support group can provide an opportunity to build new relationships and connections and get support and information specific to their loved one’s condition.
- It can reduce anxiety, depression, and stress levels
Once you talk about your experiences and find that others are going through something similar, it can be an immense relief to let it all out. Simply talking through your feelings of anger, frustration, grief, or any other emotion has been shown to relieve stress and reduce anxiety. As you listen to the experiences of others, you’ll also gain self-understanding and self-awareness to help you better recognize and cope with your own issues.
For many, a support group can function as a bridge between medical and emotional needs. You may experience the physical effects of stress, but your doctor isn’t providing the emotional support you need to help relieve it. That’s where a support group can help. That said, t’s important to note that a support group isn’t a substitute for therapy or professional psychological help. Talk with your doctor about how you’re feeling to see if a support group is a good option for you.
- It can help restore a sense of empowerment and control
Not knowing what to expect next from your loved one’s condition can make you feel out of control and uncertain about the future. In a support group with others who are in your situation, you’re likely to find people who are further along in their caregiving journey. This can help you better understand what to expect and calm some fears you may have about the unknown.
Learning from others who are further down the road can also give you hope. Seeing that other caregivers are surviving and thriving can help you stay motivated and positive about the future.
- You’ll learn a lot
Support groups aren’t all emotions all the time. When you connect with others who are going through what you are, you can often learn new strategies, tips, and tricks to help you better care for your loved one and yourself. Those who have more experience than you can provide valuable insight into what works and what doesn’t, resources you may not know about, and provide specific feedback on your situation. Better understanding your loved one’s condition can help reduce your stress and anxiety and improve quality of life for both of you.
- Helping others helps you
Not only will you benefit directly from the group experience, but you can also help other group members along the way. Research shows that as you see the positive effects of sharing with others and improving their experience, you’ll feel more joy and satisfaction.
Aging Care explains why and how this happens: “The helper therapy principle is the term that was introduced in 1965 by Frank Riessman, Ph.D., a social psychologist and pioneer of the self-help movement, to describe the benefits that people get when they assist others in mutual-aid support groups. Research has shown that both the helpers and the helped can benefit from gathering to give and receive support. Those who get help receive guidance and reassurance, while the helpers receive the positive feelings of increased relevance and self-esteem that coincide with translating their personal experiences into advice for others.”
Caregiving can be an isolating experience, but it doesn’t have to be. Support groups can be a godsend, and they are more accessible and inclusive than ever. There are many ways you can find groups that might be right for you, from searching “Groups” on Facebook to reaching out to your local hospitals and community centers. You can also search for groups using the Eldercare Locator, a database maintained by the government. And for more family caregiver resources, check out this recent post that discusses some options you might not know about.
If you need more hands-on support in the form of a caregiver, you can learn more about in-home care services here. We also offer help for specific conditions that can be especially challenging for family caregivers, such as dementia. We are here to be part of your care team and support you and your loved one in any way we can!