By Wendy Johnstone
“New to the caregiver support group, I was so nervous and skeptical about attending. My doctor suggested I give it a try. They were all strangers to me; I wasn’t sure if I wanted to open up about my wife’s disease. As I walked to my car after the meeting, I felt a big weight lifted from my shoulders. The difference: even though my role as a caregiver was unchanged; I knew I wasn’t alone anymore. I came as a stranger, but I left feeling like I was part of a family.”
A family caregiver is a family member or friend who gives unpaid care to an adult either at home or in a facility, who has a physical or mental health condition, chronic illness or frailty due to aging. Twenty-seven per cent of British Columbians are caregivers; the majority are woman and almost 90 per cent of caregivers provide support and care for over a year.
There are many different perspectives about what is most important to people providing care, ranging from training, support, education, counselling and so forth. Often, the value of peer support is overlooked. Caregivers seek peer support at different stages in their caregiving role. Often linked with positive long-term health and wellness, research shows that when family caregivers participate in peer support, there is an overall improvement in health, and decreased feelings of isolation and depression.
Peer support provides caregivers dedicated time and space to be with other caregivers dealing with similar issues, a place to receive and give support and a safe place to vent. Support groups allow caregivers to focus on their needs, not just the needs of the care recipient. It aligns with the philosophy when the oxygen mask drops in an airplane cabin. We always put on our own mask first before helping the person who needs us.
Caregivers who attend support groups will tell you it isn’t all “airy fairy” talk about feelings. Support groups are invaluable places to hear specific tips on navigating the system and how adjusting one’s approach can be a game changer. Participants often say they truly listen to another’s perspective or ideas because “they get it.”
Peer support emphasizes preventing caregiver burnout and the idea that family caregivers can directly impact the well being of the person they are caring for. It’s common for family caregivers and their care recipients to have differing perspectives; having a group of people who understand what you are going through is priceless.
The best place to find support is to start by calling the Family Caregivers of BC’s toll-free (in BC) Caregiver Support line at 1-877-520-3267.