By Sonya Stinson
Family caregivers across the country are finding emotional support and practical help through caregiver circles. These small caregiver support networks can be informal agreements among friends, neighbors and family members who pitch in when needed, or they can be more organized groups of fellow caregivers and community volunteers. They're not new, but their accessibility online has made coordinating caregiver support easier than ever.
Examples of caregiver circles can be found at neighborhood centers, places of worship and even online. For instance, Lotsa Helping Hands is a website that lets caregivers create and build communities of members in their local areas and post requests for support via an online Help Calendar.
Nancy Monelli, minister of children and families at Phinney Ridge Lutheran Church in Seattle, started a caregiver circle after noticing that many church members were stressed out from taking care of loved ones. Monelli could relate personally to what they were going through.
“I have been a caregiver, and I know how much having people listen to me was helpful to me when my mother was dying, even though I was not her live-in help other than a week here and a week there," Monelli says. “Also, my husband has had an ongoing medical condition that has caused, over the last 20-some years, acute periods of caregiving."
At the first circle meeting, Monelli says, “We talked about it being a safe place where they could talk and where we could pray for one another."
Besides offering moral and spiritual reinforcement, another purpose of the group is to share information about community services and solutions members can use to make their caregiving roles easier. Monelli has referred some group members to a local community center that offers support groups for the spouses of Alzheimer's patients. A church pastor who used to do hospice work and another who was a caregiver to his wife have been invited to speak to the group.
Pat Youngblood, lead organizer of the Caregiver Circle Project based at the Peaslee Neighborhood Center in Cincinnati, was tapped for that post when she was involved with a local community awareness campaign on retirement security. The Caregiver Circle Project entails a series of short-term group formations, with each circle holding three meetings led by a trained facilitator. In the first meeting, participants discuss their experiences with caregiving. The second meeting focuses on offeringsupport to help with the challenges of family caregiving,such as juggling the needs of the care recipient with those of children at home.
“The third gathering is about resolutions," says Youngblood, who was the family caregiver for an older brother who suffered several mini strokes. “What can we do to make our own community better?"
During a summit at the end of each annual campaign, all of the participating caregiver circles come together to share information and ideas.
“We bring in some of the local politicians so we can tell them what they can do to make caregiving better," Youngblood says.
One participant is already seeing concrete results from one of his brainstorms. A University of Cincinnati professor who joined a circle while caring for his wife is now working with a Hamilton County commissioner to start the Navigator Project to help cancer patients and their caregivers find information and assistance. They hope to extend the concept to other health issues as well.
If you'd like to start a formal caregiver support circle in your community, Monelli says it's important to pick a convenient time for the group to meet. For example, Monelli's church-based group meets between the 8:30 a.m. and 11:00 a.m. services. The schedule works well for members who have already made arrangements for someone to stay with their loved one while they attend church.
“Finding a time that's good for people and that doesn't add another stressor to their life is really helpful," Monelli says.
For anyone looking to assemble a caregiver circle for practical support from family and friends, an article from Hospice and Palliative Care of Greensboro, North Carolina, offers this advice:
“When asking your family or close friends for help with some simple day-to-day tasks, be upfront about your expectations. If you are hoping to create a schedule and expect them to make a commitment that requires help each week, tell them. Explain you need all the help and support you can get."
Read more: When the Caregiver Needs Care
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