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Find Your Anchor: Alzheimer's Support Groups Are Empowering

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Imagine being a 45-year-old mother of three teenagers, having a full-time career and a mother of your own with Alzheimer's disease, for whom you regularly provide care. This is a classic example of someone in the "sandwich generation," where responsibilities involve providing care to both children and parents. The sandwich generation has also been appropriately referred to as the "stretched generation" because of the long span of time over which caregiving can last, which could easily stretch upward of 40 years. For many of these caregivers, providing care begins with child rearing, then caring for both children and parents, followed by caring for aging family members. According to a recent survey, a full 25 percent of adult Americans report that they have an adult loved one in their life who regularly needs help with daily tasks or needs someone to check in on them in some way.

Most caregivers feel stretched and stressed, regardless of their age or lifestyle. Often, they are too busy to take care of themselves and sometimes think they can juggle all of their responsibilities. Unfortunately, the typical outcome is that these caregivers experience stress, tension, anxiety, or depression, not to mention guilt, because no matter how much one tries to do it all well, someone seems to suffer the consequences -- all too often, that someone happens to be the caregiver.

In the case of our 45-year-old "sandwich generation" caregiver, it makes me happy to know that she understands the benefits of attending a caregiver support group every month. In fact, even though her mother was hospitalized due to a fall, and her children and job responsibilities could easily have taken every minute of her spare time, she made the time and effort to attend an Alzheimer's caregiver support group every month. When introducing herself to the support group, she declared that she was determined to attend the meeting because it was the one thing that she seemed to be an anchor that kept her going.

An anchor is defined as "a person or thing that provides strength and support." For any caregiver who has felt that they needed their anchor, and motivation, to push through challenging times, the following are five benefits of attending a support group:

1. Friendship
Being with a group of people going through the same experience can help to build bonds of friendship and trust. Even after a loved one has passed, I know of many people who continue their friendships with those who they have leaned on in their support group.

2. Outlet to express feelings and de-stress
As Carl Jung taught us, "The cat ignored becomes the tiger." It seems that the more we try to hold in our feelings, the more they grow and grow until we finally reach a breaking point. Expressing feelings of sadness, anger, and guilt, helps to take some of the load off a person's mind and heart. We know that in small bursts, stress can help us to perform well under pressure, but that over the long-term, it can be debilitating to our health. An increase in blood pressure, muscle tightening and heart rate, as well as a constant stream of excess stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol, can compromise our immune systems and can also leave us even more prone to anxiety and depression. Talking about, and expressing, our feelings with others who know exactly what you're going through can help to unload some of that built-up stress.

If you simply can't find the time to attend a support group in person, there are message boards, such as the Alzheimer's Association's ALZConnected, that can help you to find an outlet online.

3. Education
I've found that many people have gone through difficult illnesses and never took the time to really learn about the disease or illness. Later, they expressed their regrets saying that they wish they had known then what they know now.

Knowledge is empowering. A support group that I recently observed had poor, and sporadic, attendance. Some felt this was attributed to group members believing that they did not need support because support to them was a sign of weakness. The facilitator changed the name of the group to the Memory Loss Empowerment Group, and attendance began to grow. This example shows that people want to feel empowered in their caregiving role and this group did just that. A support group can help a person to ask the right questions of health care providers, to learn more about a disease and the disease process, as well as make the best decision about the right caregiving environment. Learn from others who have already faced what you are going through, and contribute to the collective knowledge of the group.

4. A common purpose
Some support groups decide to reach out beyond their immediate circle to do something beneficial for others. A group that I know well in Worthington, Ohio, decided that they wanted to rally around a project to make someone smile. That initial idea, turned into smiles for a lot of people -- they made lap blankets for more than 50 people going through chemotherapy. The time that the group spent together making these blankets not only got their creative juices flowing, but it provided much-needed bonding time and friendship, and all totaled up to a great cause for those who never expected such a kind gesture and gift.

5. Improved health and well-being
Attending a support group can be the first step in realizing just how important it is to do something for yourself. Many caregivers get caught up in their day-to-day responsibilities, not giving a second thought to their own health and wellness. If you're not strong and healthy yourself, it'll be difficult to provide care for others. Meeting regularly with a group can serve as a checkpoint for your decreasing, or increasing, health over time. Sometimes, a breakthrough can simply happen when someone remarks, "You look tired!"

Often times, caregivers try too hard to stay strong and keep it all together. They believe that they can balance their many responsibilities, and sometimes put their own health on the back burner, and in the end, they cause much pain and harm to themselves and their loved ones. The next time you think that attending a support group is a sign of weakness, put those thoughts aside, and just try one. You could find your anchor, and your motivation, to help you through the caregiver journey, and you never know who you could be helping to do the same.

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