The 40 million adults in the U.S. identified as caregivers often find themselves overwhelmed, lonely and depressed. They provide care on a part-time or full-time basis for individuals — usually family members — who, because of health or other reasons, need assistance with activities of daily living. Facilitated groups can provide a nonjudgmental framework for caregivers to find understanding and support from others who are in similar situations. Support groups can be self-sustaining, but they function best when a professional counselor or trained facilitator assists group members with their processing.
A gentle but convincing nudge from my spouse started my volunteer work as the facilitator of a caregiver support group six years ago. I continue to serve caregivers in that role today. My experience as a facilitator has allowed me to make a contribution in my retirement, and I encourage other counselors to explore the same possibility.
Enormous variability exists in caregiving situations, but common among them are conditions that are of high concern in aging populations: dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, chronic illness and other age-related deterioration. The three individuals my wife pointed out to me in church that Sunday morning had become full-time caregivers of spouses with Alzheimer’s disease. My spouse said to me, “They need a group. You should do something.”
The first group started with a direct invitation from me: “Would you like to get together with some other caregivers to have a place to talk?” I was met with quick affirmative responses from two of the three people I approached, and they were soon joined by a few others who heard something was beginning. Over time, the group grew to a dozen members, with some joining and some leaving as caregiving situations changed.
Nine deaths of care receivers occurred during the first three years before the caregivers decided to dissolve the group, having worked through the stresses and strains of caregiving, as well as the agonies and life-change issues of death. Among the caregivers in that first group were spouses, adult children, relatives of care receivers, and an employee of a care center. Although the medical and physical issues of care receivers were varied, the issues of being a caregiver seemed universal.
The support group was probably therapeutic, but it was not therapy. Although I have been a licensed counselor, I was the facilitator for the group, not the therapist. People entered the group voluntarily, and there was no contract that described my behaviors, philosophy or approach. I had retired as a counselor educator and did not renew my counseling license. So, I would clarify to new members that my role was to facilitate the discussions in the group. I also stated that I had no expertise in any of the medical issues being experienced by the care receivers. I explained that, as the facilitator, I would help manage the discussion, ask questions to clarify issues and, if I felt it necessary, remind members of the few general ground rules they had established for themselves: Treat personal situations and conversations with respect, don’t dominate, listen, and accept another person’s feelings and emotions as legitimate.
I do have a philosophy about support groups. I believe that most of these groups can develop to a point where they can manage their own issues and in-group communication. However, I saw part of my role as being somewhat protective of vulnerabilities among group members. If a member expressed strong feelings that might be contrary to the beliefs of another member, I would monitor critical responses. For example, if a caregiver expressed anger at a spouse or partner — “He makes me so mad when he …” — I would listen for the “You shouldn’t feel that way” response. This seldom happened, but when caregivers are living by the “in sickness and in health” vow they took at the beginning of their marriages, they can have a set of values that discourage anger toward or criticism of a spouse.
My belief is that the primary value of caregiver support groups is to provide a place where caregivers can give voice to stressful experiences, strong feelings and personal frustrations in the company of others who, ideally, give verbal and head-nod agreement with the issue rather than criticism or value-laden responses that only make these difficult feelings intensify. In short, caregiver support groups should provide what most people in the caregiver’s larger circle cannot give — authentic empathic understanding.
There have been times during the life of caregiver groups when I moved from the role of facilitator to member. I became a caregiver when my spouse broke her hip when we were traveling out of state, resulting in surgery and several months of recovery. At one session, I moved from “my spot” in the circle to a different chair and announced, “I’m a member today, not the facilitator.”
I proceeded to share an experience in which I had become quite upset over a huge mix-up in communication with my spouse that had left each of us very angry with the other. At the time, I saw our inability to clearly communicate — both in sending clear statements and in not understanding statements — as a scary image of what our future might become as we grew older. The communication mix-up, which became funny in time and with perspective, loomed at the time as a grim picture of a possible future. Members of the support group heard my story, shared their similar concerns, and accepted my worries. When I shared the same episode with other friends, it drew none of the same empathic understanding.
In a second major block of time in the same support group, I became more member than facilitator after my spouse was diagnosed with an untreatable brain cancer and lived only three more months. I remained in the group as a member, and another person took up the facilitator role very effectively.
Several kinds of support groups can be found in most communities. I prefer a noncurricular support group. In these groups, discussion topics emerge from the issues that caregivers bring to the sessions rather than from a predetermined agenda. Many support groups, especially those established for a fixed number of sessions, operate from a curricular base — sometimes even with a textbook — and have specific topics identified for each session. Other support groups may become more instructional in format. I believe the noncurricular support group provides the best opportunity for members to talk about the critical concerns and issues they have in the caregiver role and to find the greatest empathic understanding among a small group of people who share somewhat similar life situations.
In the caregiver support groups I have facilitated, members have raised a broad range of issues, including:
- Role reversal
- Becoming an advocate for the care receiver’s medical and social needs
- Preparing for the care receiver’s death
- Money/estate issues
- Handling inappropriate questions and responses from others
- Lack of patience
- Relationship changes
- Asking for, accepting, giving and refusing help
- Decision-making for self and others
- Concerns for their own health
- Conflict with parents/siblings
- Change in social supports
- Moving the care receiver to a care facility and being an advocate for
I will comment on a few of these issues more specifically to demonstrate the value of a noncurricular caregiver support group.
Loneliness characterizes the lives of most caregivers to a certain degree and becomes extreme for some. Becoming a caregiver means that a person’s world changes. Day-to-day employment, recreational and social activities no longer exist for that person in the same way. In cases in which the care receiver’s dementia or other cognitive dysfunction begins to increase, the caregiver discovers that the person, although still physically present, begins to disappear. Loneliness becomes a way of life, as the years of sharing spirited discussions each morning over newspapers and coffee turn into coffee and silence. It isn’t uncommon in a support group to hear someone say, “She’s/He’s just not there.” The support group becomes a loneliness antidote for many members.
Depression is another common topic in caregiver support groups. More than a third of long-term caregivers experience depression, according to surveys reported by AARP. Caregivers might not use the word “depression” as they talk, but the behaviors and emotions they discuss often reflect that condition. In several group sessions, after a member has talked about depressed status, I have heard other members respond along the following lines: “I was feeling that way after my wife was at home for two months, and my physician labeled it as depression. I’m still on a prescription for antidepressants, and I think it’s perfectly OK to be on the pill.”
Role reversal happens in some fashion for nearly all caregivers who have had a long relationship with the care receiver. Couples who have been together for years and have fallen into clear divisions of responsibility around money management, food preparation, driving, decision-making and other tasks will discover that either physical or mental limitations force role changes. For example, the partner who never wrote a check finds that checks, credit cards, bills, tax preparation and all other money matters now fall under their domain. The person’s reaction to this can be either positive or negative. Being the fiscal manager may give the partner feelings of responsibility and control that they have not had before, or it can be experienced as an overwhelming burden that leaves the person feeling totally incompetent. Discussion of the effects of role reversals can be quite revealing to self and to others. If one partner who seldom drove the car because the other partner was extremely critical is now forced to become the driver — only to discover that the criticism from the nondriving care receiver only increases — relationship stress will multiply.
Lack of patience has been voiced by nearly every caregiver with whom I have had a group experience. As the person they care for starts to slow down physically or as their daily living abilities begin to disappear, caregivers see their daily load increasing, leaving them with less and less time to manage everything that needs to be done. Caregivers will often say their lack of patience is mixed with anger, even when they know it takes the care receiver longer to do nearly everything or that tasks and functions are forgotten or items misplaced. “It now takes 45 minutes to get from the house to the car, and I can feel my anger increasing with every minute. It makes us late for every appointment, and I have to start earlier and earlier for everything we do.” This statement brought unanimous head-nod agreement from an entire group. The discussion shifted to the resulting feelings of anger and loss, then moved into individual strategies for handling impatience and increased time requirements.
Becoming an advocate is a role that some people relish and others avoid. Caregivers are generally thrust into the role of patient advocate with the medical system, the care facility complex, and their surrounding social system in general. Frequent support group discussions have begun with a member telling their story of the previous week’s battle with some element of the complex that serves their care receiver. Sometimes these stories are ones of frustration, feelings of helplessness and lack of needed information. At other times, the story might emerge as a powerful feeling of accomplishment: “Yesterday, I met with the administrator of the assisted-living facility and demanded more attention to medication schedules.” These are moments for groups to celebrate, especially when caregivers who describe themselves as hesitant to challenge authority relate successful actions on behalf of their care receiver. Sometimes, when a discouraging episode has been shared, other members have related to the same issue or provided inside information gleaned from their own trying times. Some have even volunteered to accompany the caregiver to the next appointment.
Respite is labeled by experts as one of the most essential elements of caregiver health. As a topic in a support group, discussions frequently focus on how time away, or relief or respite care, would be appreciated. Simultaneously, caregivers will talk about how respite or any form of time away is impossible. This is frequently tied to the personal belief that the caregiver is the only person who can or should fulfill the task of giving care.
Help becomes a common discussion topic in one of several forms: Where do I get help? How do I ask for help? How do I turn down help? Embedded in many of these discussions are personal core values about what giving or receiving help really means. It is one of those topics where it would be easy for a facilitator to slip over into a therapist role. When caregivers describe how it is essential that they be the one who does everything and how impossible it is for them to accept help with any of their caregiver duties, the natural tendency of the trained therapist is to probe or confront or interpret in order to explore parental and other messages about help. It is also one of those situations in which group members may step in with their own illustrations of what help means, where their core values about help came from, and how their beliefs about help either facilitate or inhibit their functioning as caregivers. In staying away from my therapist tendencies to remain a facilitator, there are times when I can smile later and say to myself, “The group is doing what a good group does; they don’t need me to be the therapist.”
Information needs are high when someone first takes on the caregiver role. In early stages, they may be bombarded with pamphlets from their physician about specific diseases, friends may tell them about books to read, and technologically informed caregivers may search the web for sources. New caregivers are often directed to information support groups; medical facilities may offer groups for individuals with similarly named conditions. I find these groups helpful during the early information-gathering times, but their helpfulness diminishes when the caregiver gets deeper into the caregiving experience and discovers that information is important but not enough. It is more valuable for the caregiver to have a place where they can say, “My life is slipping away, and I don’t know what my future will be,” with six or seven people nodding in agreement. Then one of them says, “Yes, some days I don’t have anything that resembles my life before.”
Other issues common in support groups include concerns about money because long-term illness is expensive. If other family members are involved, conflict with siblings or other relatives is inevitably a cause of stress for the caregiver. Sexuality is usually discussed in the group relative to hygiene and physical care by others, but on more than one occasion, caregivers have dug in to issues of appropriate and inappropriate sexual behavior in care facilities. In a support group, caregivers may find an environment where they can talk about impending death, even anticipating relief when it comes. Often, caregivers will agonize over the decision to place their loved one in a care facility, then have additional agony with second thoughts and regret after the decision has been made, even though the decision will be described as “the right thing to do.”
Support group procedures
I believe the best way to create a caregiver support group is by invitation. Within any group of older people, it is likely that some will be serving as caregivers. Over time, that number will increase. (AARP provides good summaries of this trend at its website, aarp.org; the organization’s reports and resources are easily accessible by typing “caregiver” in the search field.) Posting announcements of a caregiver support group will attract a few people, but many people are reluctant to attend without a direct invitation.
Support groups function best when there are enough people present for good discussion but not so many as to restrict individual participation. My ideal numbers range from eight to 12 participants. I have worked with both larger and smaller groups that seemed effective, however.
Groups have a beginning and an end and can be announced as such. The open-ended entry and exit group can go on for years; facilitators need to be clear about what they are agreeing to do when they begin a group with no clear end. Ending a group and then resuming later with the same members can be effective. This can also serve to ease the transition of new members in and old members out if they choose to leave. I strongly encourage some kind of summary or ceremony when group members depart. Likewise, I urge groups that decide to end to develop a concluding summary and ceremony.
Caregiver groups, by the very nature of what brings people to the group, will morph into grief groups. In my experience, people generally wish to remain with their caregiver group rather than shift to a separate grief recovery group because of the close relationships they have formed and the comfort that comes from being with people who know their story. As group membership begins to reflect more people whose care receiver has died, it does make it more difficult for new members to join.
Volunteer versus paid facilitation is an issue for many counselors. My participation is as a volunteer. In my community, support groups exist that are tied to medical or service agencies in which the facilitator might be a paid employee. There might be instances in which insurance would cover the cost of an ongoing support group, but this is not as likely for an open-ended group as it is for a fixed-length program.
Counselors in private practice could offer support groups for which members would compensate the facilitator. Under those circumstances, members could enter the group in the same way they would enter counseling sessions — with a contractual understanding of the role of the counselor who is operating with a prescribed set of ethics and an appropriate license.
I believe it is important for group facilitators to have a person they can go to regularly to discuss issues that arise for them in the facilitation role. In the same way that we expect counselors to have clinical supervision, facilitators need to seek this support. I get this through occasional coffee sessions with a friend who is a clinician.
I urge counselors to find or to create support groups that make use of the facilitation skills that counselors possess. Caregivers in their communities will be the beneficiaries. The service meets a critical need, and the satisfaction that facilitators will experience is beyond measure.
I’d like to thank Bob Lewis and all the other caregivers over the years who have taught me what I know about support groups. I appreciate the stories and feelings they have shared and for the support they have given each other in such meaningful ways.
Brooke B. Collison is an emeritus professor of counselor education at Oregon State University. He is a fellow and a past president of the American Counseling Association. For the past several years, he has served as a facilitator for caregiver support groups as a volunteer activity in his retirement. Contact him at BBCollison@comcast.net.
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