Support Groups for Seniors
Advice for families and caregivers
Joining a support group, either in person or on line, can make a tremendous difference in how well seniors cope. In most groups people share disease-management strategies, although in some they practice relaxation techniques. Most seniors in support groups benefit from interacting with others in their situation and participation tends to strengthen compliance with physicians' recommendations.
Q: My parent feels that we don't understand her now that she has heart disease. How can I help?
A: Suggest that she join a support group. Most cardiac rehabilitation centers offer them, and they will consist of others in her situation.
Another option is mendedhearts.org (or call 1-888-HEART99 or email firstname.lastname@example.org) -- a link to cardiac support groups for people with heart disease and their loved ones offered by the American Heart Association.
In addition to offering the support of others in her situation, the groups should reinforce your parent's commitment to her cardiac rehabilitation and to making any necessary lifestyle changes.
Q: How can I help my parent stop smoking?
A: Unfortunately, smoking is addictive. Encourage your parent to get help for both the psychological and physiological dependence. For most people, the best way to quit will be some combination of medication, a strategy to change personal habits, and emotional support. Here are some specific resources:
- The American Cancer Society (ACS) runs a QuitLine, where trained counselors offer phone counseling in which they find out the specific characteristics of each person's smoking habit and then give individualized advice on how best to quit. To register for a Quitline phone counseling program, call the ACS at 1-800-ACS-2345.
- For those who would prefer in-person support groups, try your parent's local hospital, health insurance company, employer, or call 1-800-ACS-2345 for your parent's local branch of the American Cancer Society.
- Another option is Nicotine Anonymous groups, which follow the guidelines of Alcoholics Anonymous. Some programs are more successful than others, so ask for references to be sure the one you are considering is successful.
- More intensive programs -- with more hours over a longer period of time and/or more personal counseling -- tend to be more successful. Often, programs will combine counseling with some sort of nicotine replacement therapy to gradually wean a person off of the nicotine addiction while dealing with the psychological one. Different substances can be used, such as lozenges, sprays, gum, or patches -- to give safer forms of nicotine while weaning a person off of it.
- For those who don't want to attend group meetings, the American Lung Association website offers a quit smoking action plan.
Q: How can I help my parent to stop drinking?
A: Perhaps having a diagnosed heart condition will give your parent the incentive needed.
- Remind your parent how important he or she is to you and your family, how much you want your parent to continue to be in your lives, and that you fear the alcohol will prevent that.
- Encourage your parent to talk about stopping drinking with a physician, who can prescribe medicine to help with the alcohol withdrawal and may be able to connect him or her with a local support group.
- Usually a combination of medication to decrease the effects of withdrawal, along with emotional support, is needed.
- Of course, there are Alcoholics Anonymous groups all over the country. Each group will have a different style. Your parent should find the one with which he or she is most comfortable.
Q: How can I help my parent who is depressed from the side effects of radiation therapy?
A: Depression during treatment is quite common.
- Reassure your parent that the side effects will disappear within a few weeks of treatment, but also tell the doctor that your parent is depressed. Treating the depression may help your parent's recovery from the radiation.
- Some people benefit from joining a support group for those dealing with cancer or their particular form of cancer. In some support groups members share their experiences and feelings, while in others they engage in relaxation techniques such as yoga or guided meditation. Support groups can be found at your local hospital or online at cancer.org. Find one that fits your parent's personality and preferences.
- For those who have neuropathy, there is a specific support group at neuropathy.org.
- Another option is for your parent to talk with a clergy person, which many find helpful.
Q: How can I help my parent who is traumatized by her chemotherapy-induced hair loss?
A: If your parent is traumatized by hair loss:
- Empathize, and don't minimize. Even though this symptom is not as debilitating as, say, nausea, it is very public and distressing. Don't rush him or her into thinking about wigs and hats. Let your parent focus as long as needed on the unwished-for change.
- When your parent is ready, help him or her find wigs, hats, eyebrows and/or eyelashes. Support your parent's search for the right look. The hair loss may reinforce a sense of loss of control due to aging in general, and feeling okay about his or her appearance can help your parent feel more in control. Some websites that may be helpful are Headcovers Unlimited and breastcancer.org.
- If your parent expresses shame or discomfort for being upset about something trivial or superficial like appearance, let your parent know that his or her reaction is totally understandable.
- If your parent is reluctant to be seen in public with this evidence of illness, help him or her to come up with a response to use if someone comments on it.
- If your parent is depressed due to the hair loss, find someone for him or her to talk with who has experienced the same thing, and see if this helps.
- If your parent can summon the energy to exercise, it may improve his or her sense of well-being, which will help mood and therefore help combat depression. But if the depression persists, find a professional to treat the depression.
- Suggest that your parent join a cancer support group, which many patients find helpful. In some support groups participants share their experiences and feelings, while in others they practice relaxation techniques such as like yoga or guided meditation. Support groups can be found at your local hospital, or online at cancer.org. Find one that fits your parent's personality and preferences.
- Many people find talking with a clergy person to be helpful.
Q: My parent is depressed by the changes in his life due to loss of vision. How can I help?
A: Your parent will have to mourn the loss of that life and gradually come to terms with his new life. Here's how you can help:
- Encourage your parent to join a support group, where others in his or her situation share their feelings about and strategies to cope with vision loss.
- Encourage your parent to participate in vision rehabilitation programs, and accompany him or her to some, so that you can learn what your parent can do independently. This will enable you to support his or her efforts.
- Encourage your parent to get counseling from someone trained to deal with vision issues, either individually or in a group setting.
Q: My parent only wants to talk with others who have Parkinson's. How can I help?
A: Some people with Parkinson's disease feel very different from other people and would rather talk about their feelings and fears with those in their situation who can also share solutions to common issues. For them, a support group is ideal. To find one near your parent, go to the National Parkinson Foundation at Parkinson.org/NetCommunity, or call them at 1-800-327-4545.
Q: How can I make visits with my parent who has Alzheimer's less depressing?
A: Work on creating a positive ambiance, which can help both you and your parent:
- Try to keep an upbeat mood.
- Maintain a friendly positive tone. Avoid anger, which can upset Alzheimer's patients.
- Try to talk about topics of interest to your parent, like lunch or sports or the weather, as he or she may often do better on those subjects. Avoid more abstract topics, such as politics.
- Avoid open-ended questions, which can be overwhelming. Instead ask yes or no questions.
- If you believe your parent might be depressed -- a common reaction in Alzheimer's patients who are aware of their diminishing abilities and often feel anxious about them -- have your parent evaluated and, if needed, treated for the depression.
- Support groups for people with Alzheimer's, their family and friends, exist both in person and on line. For support groups sponsored by the Alzheimer's Association, go to alz.org. For online forums on the topic, go to living_with_alzheimers.
If you are depressed, an understandable reaction to seeing a parent who has become impaired, seek treatment for your depression. Caregivers often feel overwhelmed and need to learn to carve out some time for themselves, as difficult as it may seem.
Q: I feel so alone. Are there other family members of stroke patients I can talk to?
A: There are support groups for stroke survivors and their families. For more information, go to:
Q: How can I help my parent who seems depressed since his diabetes diagnosis?
A: Researchers have found a strong correlation between depression and diabetes, and it is important to treat the depression as well as the diabetes.
People who have been newly diagnosed with diabetes have a lot to learn. Help your parent focus on problem-solving and what can be done to improve the situation. Encourage him or her to start small and then build on the changes. Reassure your parent that it will be possible to get control over his or her health, but that it will be an ongoing process and will require practice.
Support groups could help your parent during this adjustment period, and beyond. Participation in a local hospital's diabetes clinic -- which educates people about the disease and teaches things such as how to monitor glucose levels -- could also be helpful. The American Diabetes Association has a webpage specifically geared to those who were recently diagnosed.
If your parent's distress persists for over six weeks, have him or her evaluated for depression.
Q: Would a support group help my diabetic parent who now feels very different from us?
A: Yes, a support group might enable your parent to realize that many others have diabetes and also offer practical suggestions for coping with the disease. Many diabetics find it helpful to share their experiences and feelings with others in their situation. Call 1-800-Diabetes to find support groups in your area, check with your doctor or local hospital, or look online at diabetes support group information. For those who have neuropathy, there is a specific support group at neuropathy.org.
Q: Where can my parent find others who have kidney disease to talk with?
A: Support groups for patients with kidney disease might be very helpful. At least three different national organizations offer support groups, in addition to those offered at area hospitals. Here are phone numbers for the three national organizations:
American Association of Kidney Patients
American Kidney Fund
National Kidney Foundation
Q: Are there any support groups for arthritis sufferers?
For those who want to learn more about living with their condition from other patients, blogs and forums sponsored by The Arthritis Foundation may be helpful. These can be found at arthritis.org, achievingchange.blogspot.com/, and arthritis.org/communitiesnew/Forum.
Q: My parent has chronic pain. How can she find others to talk with?
A: Chronic pain support groups should help. For online chronic pain support groups she could try:
There are also many support groups that meet in person. Search on the internet for your zip code plus "chronic pain support group" to find one near you.
Q: My parent's breathing problems depress him. How can I help?
A: Joining a support group for others dealing with the same or similar issues could be helpful.
- The American Lung Association runs Better Breathers, support groups for those with chronic lung disease that both educate and offer opportunities to share experiences. To find out more, go to lungusa.org, or call the American Lung Association at 1-800-LUNG-USA.
- Other groups might be offered at your local hospital.
- If your parent tries this and is still depressed, encourage him or her to get treated for depression, and make sure that the treatment is working.
Q: Would it help if my parent joined a support group for people who are depressed?
A: Many depressed people find support groups very helpful. You can see if your parent is interested. To find a support group for people suffering from depression, you can go to nami.org or to the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance website at dbsalliance.org. For an online support group, go to major_depression.