caring for yourself when you’re caring for others

Caring for a loved one who has dementia can leave caregivers exhausted, overwhelmed, and isolated. But you don’t have to go it alone, says Sallie Carlin, Executive Director at Willow Gardens Memory Care in New Rochelle. Carlin is an Alzheimer’s Association- trained facilitator of caregiver support groups. She says that caregiver groups allow you to bond and share experiences with others who are going through the same things – even the guilt you may feel after losing your patience with a parent or a spouse affected by dementia.

“You may have said something you regretted to your mother or husband, and wondered how you let yourself do that. In a caregiver group, you can talk about that and be accepted,” says Carlin. “Support groups are confidential. What you say in the group stays in the group.”

Key benefits of attending a support group include receiving practical advice, learning about community resources, improving your coping skills, and gaining a sense of control over your situation, according to Carlin.

“Groups offer long-term benefits in the form of supportive relationships, as well as practical tips for immediate use,” Carlin said. For example, she recalled a group discussion on the difficulties of getting someone with Alzheimer’s dressed in the morning. “We talked about providing choices – allowing a parent to choose between two shirts, which isn’t overwhelming but provides a feeling of decision-making power – and members of the group put that into practice right away.”

It’s not uncommon to feel apprehensive about joining a support group, and that’s understandable, says Carlin. “Sharing what you’re going through with people you’ve just met may feel strange. You don’t have to share your story, you can just listen and hear what others have to say.” She advises communicating your preferences with the facilitator beforehand.

A typical meeting lasts one to two hours, and may include a sign-in process, introductions, and a topical theme, such as coping with challenging behaviors or dementia treatments. Groups usually may meet weekly or monthly. Caregivers may find virtual gatherings helpful, as they also offer the opportunity to connect with others in similar situations. Not a joiner? Try it out, anyway, says Carlin.

Being a caregiver is challenging. But you may find that spending time with fellow caregivers gives you the strength to go on.

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