Support Group 101

Benefits of a support group

Finding the Group to Fit Your Needs.

It doesn’t matter our age, or our stage, in life. There may be times when a support group can prove to be a valuable asset.

Life-altering issues such as illness, death or depression can leave most people in need of an effective way to deal with the emotions that come along with those situations. While individual therapy with a professional counselor can be beneficial, some people may find additional comfort in joining a support group.

For some seniors and boomers, talking with a group of strangers about something that is deeply personal can be difficult. They belong to a generation that was not encouraged to openly share their feelings, so talking with others about their struggles may feel inappropriate and uncomfortable.

But a good support group can serve as a lifeline – providing a safe place to talk about your feelings with others who will most certainly understand because they have been there themselves.

Support Group or Therapy Group?

Self-help groups have a history of effectiveness in helping individuals cope with certain issues, including the death of a loved one, drug addiction or living with chronic health conditions. Alcoholics Anonymous, (AA), for example, has existed since 1935 and is proven to help alcoholics in their battle to get and stay sober.

So how do you know if joining a support group is right for you, or even if there is one in your area that fits your needs?

Support groups exist for a variety of situations, and you will be hard-pressed to find a community that doesn’t have at least a few. Support groups are most beneficial to individuals who are dealing with a situation that is likely to create ongoing complications in their lives, such as living with a chronic illness, or alcohol or substance abuse.

It is important to note that support groups are not the same as group therapy. Group therapy is a form of mental health treatment that brings together people dealing with a specific condition or situation under the guidance of a trained mental health provider.  Support groups can be led by a trained counselor or mental health professional, but most often are facilitated by a layperson. Some support groups are formed by nonprofit organizations and advocacy groups and may be led by someone who has training in the specific issue of focus for the group but is not a licensed mental health counselor.

Benefits of Support Groups

Like personal counseling, support groups offer a number of benefits to those who participate. And regardless of whether the format is structured or casual, the opportunity to gain access to resources, tips, and tools for dealing with a situation is invaluable.

Say, for instance, you are living with a chronic health condition. Not only can being around others who share your struggle (and your pain) be an uplifting experience, you also may gain the opportunity to learn about new treatments or research that could help you live a fuller life. Sharing tips and recommendations for healthcare professionals, mental health counselors and even treatment methods and medications can be a huge benefit of spending time with others who share your struggles.

And, simply knowing that someone else has “been there, done that” can be incredibly comforting. It may be difficult to explain to a good friend how losing your spouse has made you feel. Even though the person is if your friend if they have not experienced the loss of a spouse, it can be difficult for them to truly understand what you are going through. But going to a support group for grieving widows or widowers opens a whole new world of people who truly understand how you feel.

Another benefit of support groups is that by being around others who share your struggles, you are likely to feel less judged for your feelings. Gaining a sense of empowerment and control over the situation, as well as improving your coping skills and ability to adjust to your situation also are major perks. And while it may be uncomfortable, at first, to talk with strangers about something deeply personal, being able to talk openly and honestly about your feelings will lead to the reduction of depression and anxiety over your situation.

Characteristics of a Quality Support Group

The overall experience a person has with a support group often is based on personal preference, so what might be ideal for one person would not be acceptable to another. However, there are some common characteristics of quality support groups that can help when making a selection.

According to the Mayo Clinic, the common characteristics that help to make any support group effective and beneficial to participants include:

  • Receiving prompt responses to inquiries from group organizers;
  • Updated information about the group’s purpose, and any resources it shares with members;
  • Strong leadership;
  • Access to professional advisors, counselors and other professionals who align with the group’s objective; and
  • Guaranteed confidentiality for all members.

There are a few groups out there with proven track records that are worth noting. Many of these groups are for common issues seniors and boomers face, which is why we’ve chosen to highlight them in this blog. is a weekly in-person support group that deals with grief as the result of the death of a family member or friend. While there are other scenarios in life that may cause feelings of grief – the loss of a job, divorce, estrangement from a family member(s) – is specifically for those experiencing sadness and loss due to a death among friends or family.

Seniors who attend a GrieifShare group will receive a DVD that features top experts in the field of grief recovery, as well as a workbook for recording personal reflections and other helpful information. Each GriefShare in-person session provides the opportunity to share your story, or to simply listen to others speak about their experiences and what has helped them to heal. GriefShare groups exist globally, with the majority of them located in the U.S. and Canada. There is a search function on the GriefShare website that allows users to plug in a zip code, city or country to locate a group near them.

Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous are two groups that have a longstanding reputation for helping those addicted to drugs and alcohol to get – and stay – clean. Because of its excellent reputation for effectiveness, it is easy to locate an AA or NA group in your area. The NA website offers a search tool that allows users to input a zip code or a city to locate a group near them. A similar search tool is available on the AA website as well and is located on the home page for the organization in the top left corner.

Other support groups that may be helpful for seniors include:

Finding a Support Group

If you think a support group would be a great resource, there are a number of ways to find quality groups in your area, including the resources mentioned above.

One of the best references is your doctor or other healthcare providers. If you are suffering from a chronic health condition, chances are, your healthcare provider will know of support groups in the area. Contacting local nonprofits, community centers, libraries and even churches can help in your search, as many of support groups are hosted in these places.

Contacting organizations is another great way to find a support group. If, for instance, you are living with type 2 diabetes and would like the support of others who are living with the same condition, contact the American Diabetes Association for recommendations for groups in your area.

If all else fails, take to the Internet and conduct a search using keywords that include support groups, and the condition or topic for which you are seeking a support group.

Have some tips to share on finding a good support group, or an experience with a support group that has changed your life for the better? We’d love to hear about it in the comment section.

Mary Spann

Mary Spann

Mary Spann is the founder and president of Upside of Downsizing®. In addition to her 26 years in construction, interior design, and home staging, Mary also holds college degrees in Social Work and Psychology, making her uniquely qualified to assist with the downsizing process, and helping 50 plus year olds achieve a happy and healthy life balance. Mary learned the key components of construction and interior design at an early age. Her father was a prominent custom home builder in Minnesota and Texas, and her mother was a successful interior designer and a real estate broker.
Mary Spann