Welcome to Support
Groups at Natural Earth
Groups: How to Make the Most of Them By Lynne Taetzsch
Over the past six years, I have belonged to two support groups,
and they’ve both been helpful in different ways. In my bipolar
support group, I was one of the sufferers, though our group also
welcomed family members and friends. My Alzheimer’s support
group was for caregivers of those with Alzheimer’s or other
types of dementia. Both groups helped me immeasurably.
If you are thinking about joining a group or starting one in your
community, here are some tips on what to expect and how to get the
most from your group.
Your Story and Problems:
Other than hiring a therapist, a support group offers the perfect
place to talk about ourselves and our problems. We’ll be with
people who are going through the same things we are. They know what
we mean when we talk about sleepless nights, depression, anxiety,
guilt—whatever it is we’re suffering at the moment.
In my bipolar support group, there are many varieties of experience
because no two people suffer the exact same set of symptoms and
responses, but we have enough in common to understand what the other
person is going through. In my Alzheimer’s support group,
members can understand what it’s like to care for a father
or mother with dementia on a day-to-day basis better than another
family member who might visit twice a year.
The flip side of telling your own story, of course, is respectful
listening to other people’s problems. This is a gift we offer
each other in support groups. We listen with empathy. We respect
others’ points of view, acknowledge their emotions, and allow
them to express whatever it is they are feeling.
and Giving advice:
Support groups are a great place to get advice from those more
experienced than we are, and to share our own experience when it’s
called for. In my Alzheimer’s support group, we shared information
about medications, assisted living facilities, home health aides,
and nursing homes. Some of us were caring for our relatives at home,
while others were supporting them in local facilities, depending
on the stage of the disease.
In my bipolar group, we freely talk about the medications we are
taking, the side effects we experience, and the benefits or lack
thereof. Our group is in a small city, so we also offer advice about
local psychiatrists and therapists, if a member asks.
The key to giving advice in a support group is simple: only give
it when it’s asked for. Sometimes members just want to vent
their feelings and to explore their situation out loud to a group
of supportive listeners. Very often, we can’t really solve
another person’s problem, but we can listen attentively.
If you’re not sure whether to give advice or not, it’s
best to simply ask. After you’re in a group for a while, however,
you’ll usually get a feel for when it’s appropriate
and when not.
Differences of Opinions and Philosophies:
Think of a support group as a place to share ideas while respecting
differences. One member may be a believer in alternative medicine.
Another may think faith is the best cure. One night at my bipolar
meeting, a new person said aggressively that everyone, without fail,
should be cured through mainstream medicine. She got very upset
when other members expressed different points of view. An argument
ensued, and the new member never came back.
One of the benefits of going to a support group is to hear different
experiences and opinions. You don’t have to follow anyone
else’s advice, but it is important to listen respectfully
Along with listening and sharing is the necessity for confidentiality.
In order for everyone to feel free to speak what’s on our
mind, we have to be confident that what we say in that room will
Most groups have a list of principles and procedures they follow,
even if the list is understood rather than part of a written or
stated document. Regular members will sometimes revisit this list
and revise it when necessary. In my bipolar group, we had a problem
with one member who monopolized the conversation, so we instituted
some simple rules about timing in order to give everyone a chance
Support groups take some effort to maintain, and usually there
are one or two people who take responsibility for this. Some support
groups are sponsored and run by a paid facilitator, as our Alzheimer’s
group was. Others, like my bipolar group, are run by the members.
Several of us take turns facilitating, and we share the administrative
tasks like notifying the newspapers to list our meeting times.
As you become more familiar with your group, you may want to share
in its administration. Over time you may also find, as I have, that
your group is not only a source of comfort and advice, but lasting
friendship as well.
Copyright 2006 Lynne Taetzsch. Lynne Taetzsch is
a writer and artist who has personally experienced issues of depression
and bipolar disorder, aging, and caregiving for a parent with dementia.
She is the author of essays, articles, stories, and eleven books.
Find more of her personal insights and health resources at http://artbylt.blogs.com/bipolardementia.
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