Gillian Jones: Caregiving support meeting gives perspective

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ADAMS — I went to my first official caregiver support meeting one Tuesday night back in August at the Adams Council on Aging in the Adams Visitors' Center. The meeting is held monthly and I got a last minute invitation from Beth Mougin, who is the facilitator of the group, and about eight of us were in attendance.

Beth invited me through email and called it, "Tuesdays with the Girls." I recognized a few of the people, all of whom were women, and all older than me.

While I am an advocate of one-on-one individual therapy, I cannot say I have ever been in any kind of regular support group. I was once invited to a "debriefing" with the local police and fire departments after a particularly horrific accident, which I covered. I also took photos for a story about, and ultimately took part in, an acquired brain injury support group at Berkshire Medical Center. I have been in and out of therapy all my life, and have taken advantage of the Employee Assistance Program through my work. The program is a voluntary, work-based program that offers free and confidential assessments, short-term counseling, referrals, and follow-up services to employees who have personal and/or work-related problems.

Once I did get together informally with two women for an impromptu caregiver support meeting, with drinks, at the Freightyard Pub in North Adams on a Monday night. We closed down the place. It felt good to talk about what we were going through. I was still the youngest and had been caregiving the shortest amount of time. Both women, about 10-15 years older than me, had been caregivers for one or both parents for a span of at least four or five years or more.

LET'S NOT TALK ABOUT IT

Honestly, there is literally no one my age going through what I am. And taking care of my 86-year-old demented mother is not something people want to talk about. Most of my friends have healthy, active parents in their 70s. While I can see where they are going to be in 10 years or so, no one seems to want to chat about it, or plan ahead. One friend actually got upset with me. Her parents are in their late 70s and she is planning to move home to the Berkshires in the near future to be close to them. But she isn't there yet, and probably doesn't want to think about it. I can't say I blame her.

As for the support group experience, it was insightful. The experiences of the women ranged from caring for a relative, like an aunt, to caring for a parent or spouse. Most of the women had cared for their loved one until they could no longer do so. Others had lost their loved one and continued to go to the group for support. One was even in the early stages of dealing with her husband who was starting to get extremely forgetful.

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While I plan on taking care of my mom at home until the end, these women seemed to say it was okay if I couldn't. That is to say it might get to the point where it is no longer possible to do so at home. That is something I had not really thought of.

The group session lasted about an hour and a half, but many lingered afterwards to chat with one another in small groups.

Knowing that you are not alone is the best part of joining a caregiver support group.

According to the AARP, the benefits of joining a support group are well documented: "Decades of research show that social support helps people cope," says psychologist Barry J. Jacobs, coauthor with Julia L. Mayer of AARP Meditation for Caregivers, "Caregivers often can't speak openly with family members about their emotional reactions, and a support group provides a relative degree of anonymity."

SIMILAR CHALLENGES

As for the anonymity factor, that is tough in a small community like the Berkshires. Personally I think more people need to just open up and talk about caregiving. Whether you are caring for an elderly parent, or a special needs child or adult, the challenges are similar. The job can be frustrating and painful.

While it is hard enough to find time for myself and balance my jobs with caregiving and my life, I am going to try to make time to find others who are going through the same thing. Whether it is a support group, or a night out with a couple of fellow caregivers, I believe that camaraderie, in addition to writing this column, will help me to survive this part of my life. Perhaps it will even make me a better caregiver and someday even an asset to my friends — when they are experiencing it for themselves first-hand.

An Eagle digital visual journalist, Gillian Jones is writing a monthly oped series on caregiving. Her email is gjones@berkshireeagle.com.


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