Some 40 million family caregivers across the U.S. provide unpaid assistance and care to aging parents, spouses and other loved ones. And a recent Caring.com survey showed that nearly 40 percent of these caregivers are spending more than 30 hours a week on caregiving. Typical responsibilities include taking a loved one to doctor's appointments, managing finances and assistance with basic activities such as eating, bathing or simply getting around.
The result of hours spent caring for and worrying about another family member can include stress, burnout, isolation and mental health issues for the caregiver. One way to combat the often-overwhelming side effects of caregiving is to join a caregiver support group.
"Joining a caregiver support group is one of the best things a family caregiver can do," says Dr. Nicole Rochester, CEO of Your GPS Doc, and former caregiver to her aging father.
What follows are seven reasons experts say joining a caregiver support group is a good idea.
1. To find 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. For 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 OK 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. To find strength in difficult times
At times, caregiving can seem like an impossible task, and there are good days and bad days. When things are especially rough, says Dr. Nora O'Brien, executive director of Willow Towers Assisted Living, "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, helping provide much-needed support without feeling like you're burdening family members who may be dealing with the same issues.
4. For a safe and confidential community
"The support group . . . is confidential," says O'Brien. "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. For 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 the following.
- 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. To prevent 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. For 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 to remember: the healthier you are, the better equipped you’ll be to help your loved one stay healthy.
To connect with other family caregivers online, visit Caring.com's support groups