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How to locate a support group and connect with other caregivers.

Caring for an elderly loved one is often a lonely process. Although there are people to help you and maybe even family around you, you sometimes feel that no one understands exactly what this process is like. And you're right. Caring for someone is a unique experience

But members of caregiver support groups might know what you're going through and connecting with them might be exactly what you need.

"Support groups can help people feel less isolated," says Mary Stehle, a senior care advisor at Care.com. Your best friend may also be caring for an aging mom, but if her mom doesn't have advanced dementia and yours does, the situations are vastly different.

According to Dr. Dale Lund, author of "Respite Services: Enhancing the Quality of Daily Life for Caregivers and Care Receivers," "Support groups have the potential to allow a person to vent and to feel a sense of support from others." When someone in your support group identifies with a certain struggle you're having, that connection can feel like a burden lifting from your shoulders.

Would a support group work for you? Here are four steps to finding one that fits your situation.

  1. Find the Right Group for You
    Support groups come in all different formats. They may be disease specific, for people who are caring for those with Alzheimer's or autism, for instance. Or the support group could be general for anyone in a caregiving role.

    "People get different things from support groups," says Stehle. Many participants glean valuable information about resources like where to find good respite care, how to pay for it and information about certain conditions.

  2. Ask for Suggestions
    Finding a group can be as simple as asking friends or doctors for a referral. Talk to people who care for an elderly, disabled or special needs person and see if they have any recommendations. Check with local organizations to see if they run any groups or can suggest places to look.

  3. Research the Group
    Does the thought of sharing your personal story with a group make you cringe? If support groups are just not your thing, you might want to call the contact person and talk with them a little to find out what you might expect from their group. It might not be what you're thinking. You can ask what format they follow, if they use an agenda, and if you will be asked to talk about your situation. You might find that just hearing others' struggles gives you insight on how to approach your own.

  4. Make the Time
    We all know you have to take the time from a schedule that hardly lets you eat, let alone spend an hour with others. But it should be a priority, right up there with a loved one's doctor's appointment. If you're in a rural area or it takes too long to get to a meeting, there are reputable online support group forums that let you fit it into your schedule whenever you can.

    If you just have a question or are puzzled by your loved one's behavior, many organizations, such as the Alzheimer's Association, have a 24-hour hotline you can call.

  5. Keep Looking
    If you go to an Alzheimer's caregiver support group, but all the members are caring for someone with advanced disease, you might be overwhelmed hearing their stories, says Lund. What if you just didn't like how the group was run? Shop around a little.

    "Go with an open mind and on a trial basis," advises Lund, so that you can see what different groups offer and where you might fit best. And if there is no group in your area, ask around and find people who might want to form one.

    "Wherever you are, there are people caring for others," says Stehle. And you can always lean on a few trusted confidants, says Lund, so you can get support. "Search for good listeners, rather than advice givers," he suggests, so you can get the benefits of just talking about your own concerns.

Julia Quinn-Szcesuil is an award-winning freelance writer and a mom to two girls. She lives in Massachusetts and has written for local and national publications.

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