Using Online Caregiver Forums: Some Observations and Thoughts

Caregivers need support groups but often find it difficult to get away from their responsibilities and attend an in-person group. Their available free time may be too small a slot, or may not match the time of a scheduled support meeting. The more overwhelmed and stressed the caregiver is, the less likely it is that this caregiver can reach an in-person group.

This situation is really sad because support groups reduce caregiver isolation and provide a safe forum to exchange stories, problems, and suggestions with each other. Attending even a few meetings can transform how caregivers perceive their situation; they start finding the challenges more bearable, the changed behavior is taken less personally, and they are able to use suggestions they get from others and even generate creative solutions themselves.

Given the practical problems related to attending in-person groups, we need to examine the use of online forums for caregiver sharing and support. I am using this blog post to share my observations and thoughts, and give my suggestions, based on a number of online support groups that I have been part of–some as an active participant, and some as a lurker.

There are many types of online caregiver forums. At one end of the range, there are large forums that have structure and moderation and are handled by a group of committed persons/ some volunteer organization, and continue for years. And then we have small, informal groups that some caregivers form to stay connected and support each other, with membership varying from five or six to around fifteen or so.

Let me first share my observations and thoughts about smaller, informal caregiver groups. If you have been part of such groups, I’d love to hear from you about your experiences and impressions…

In the last five years, I have seen many instances of caregivers creating their own online groups. Some groups emerged after caregivers met during some face-to-face support group meeting or caregiver training and decided to stay in touch online. Others emerged when caregivers happened to meet online and decided they needed to get together for mutual support, and therefore gathered a group by bringing in friends (and friends of friends) or using social media. These groups were relatively informal with no active moderation. While some members were volunteers or professionals were included, they were not present in the capacity of a moderator or administrator or even an expert, just present as members.

Firstly, the groups were typically very fast to set up. Some caregiver would tell another, let’s set up something to stay in touch, and then a few of them decided on a technological platform they all were comfortable with and plunged in right away. I’ve seen email groups and Facebook groups (but not bulletin boards) getting kicked off and working full steam within days of someone suggesting starting a group.

The initial momentum was heartening. Caregivers were clearly eager to get and give support and they openly shared their situations and problems, and were generous to each other while empathizing and sharing suggestions. Conversations were meaningful and it was clear that a rapport was building. Of course, the usefulness of the group depended on the members’ availability, involvement, knowledge, and degree of articulation, but definitely most members found the groups helpful.

However, the tempo faded after a while. Participation died down even though no one specifically unsubscribed. Some queries got no responses or just perfunctory responses. Queries stopped after a while. Some subsets formed when two or three caregivers began corresponding directly/ established phone contact, but the online forum was no longer active.

One typical characteristic of these small informal groups was the lack of detailed rules and active moderation. This initially added to the sense of friends getting together, an informal air, and worked in some groups, but not in others.

There were problems, too. Everyone was not happy with the group; some even got stressed by it.

Here’s one example. One caregiver (I’ll call her AAA) was handling an aggressive parent with dementia alone, day and night, and did not have an attendant to help. Siblings had moved away and would not call. None of the other caregivers were facing such a severe challenge; they had at least some family or helper support, and not all were actually handling the daily care tasks. When AAA would post her problems and others responded, she was very unhappy with the responses because she found the responses obviously impractical given her situation (take a break, get help from your sibling) or she felt dismissed because someone would tell her to lighten up (don’t take yourself so seriously, have a good laugh instead, you’ll find it funny when you look back at it later).

After a few such responses, AAA wrote directly to me to say that the group stressed her because she had expected at least fellow caregivers to understand her problems, but now she felt even more isolated. She felt the group was not a safe space for her to unburden herself or seek help. She stopped participating there, and she and I continued our interactions on a one-to-one basis using email and phone. It was ironic and unfortunate that a support group increased her isolation.

I think one problem is the way we respond to online interactions. An in-person support group meeting is an immersive experience; caregivers see facial expressions and hear the emotion in the voices when problems are shared. Even if someone’s situation seems very different from their own, the face-to-face interaction makes it easier to pay attention and feel empathy. Selecting an appropriate response is easier, and it is easier to see when to avoid humor or realize what could sound preachy or trite or judgmental. Suggestions and comments are therefore better worded, longer, and supplemented by gestures and facial expressions that reaffirm the spirit of support.

On the contrary, in an online forum, people may not read posts/ mails carefully, or may type a hasty reply without grasping some key facts from the original post, or may sound harsher than they intended to. Or, even if they write well enough, the person reading it may be oversensitive about some phrase or suggestion, and feel hurt.

My impression, based on my (limited) experience, is that small, informal online groups function better if the members have met each other or talked to each other before interacting through the forum, because even a few earlier interactions or in-person meetings make them more willing to share experiences and create trust. They are also less likely to take offense or interpret responses as put-me-downs.

The problem AAA faced is only partly because of the characteristics inherent in the online mode of interacting. There are other factors, too. We use the word “caregiver” as if all caregivers were the same, but there is a vast diversity in caregiver situations. A small, informal online group of diverse caregivers does not include enough members who can understand and support each other for every type of care situation.

Another thing that made me uncomfortable in some of these groups was when members posted specific suggestions and advice on medication and alternate treatments. These alternate approaches were projected as medically sound, but were recommendations that I knew were scientifically suspect. Data posted to counter the claims was seen as obstructing “helpful” advice. I felt that this was the sort of situation that would typically warrant intervention by a knowledgeable moderator, but the group was not structured for moderation.

None of the groups inducted new members except for a token few in the beginning. Meanwhile, existing caregivers “moved on.” Caregivers don’t need help from the group once the person stabilizes and they get the knack for handling the situation. Or if the person reaches a different state for which the existing support group is irrelevant. Or the person dies, and the caregiver has to resume a career or rebuild a life. My impression was that existing members were not keen on new members because that would be adding an unknown factor in a group that had some sort of rapport.

Let me now share some observations based on a much larger, structured group with formal rules and guidelines on what sort of posts and language are allowed, and with moderators overseeing group functioning. Members include several caregivers coping with diverse care situations.

As in the smaller groups, I saw the participation of individual caregivers change a lot over time. Some rarely posted; others posted actively for some time but then reduced participation or even stopped it; some were sporadic in participation. However, as the number of caregivers was very large, and as new caregivers kept joining, the interactions remained vibrant and helpful. No query remains unanswered. The moderators, too, actively participated and keep the flow of exchanges going.

No group can be free of misunderstanding, and I did see occasional posts that seemed judgmental or harsh but usually some other member or moderator responded almost immediately to express enough empathy with the original poster and related query, thus diffusing any possibility of hurt. Inconsiderate comments were not tolerated. Spam messages or misleading promotion of dubious cures were similarly handled by moderators and other group members.

As I write mainly out of concern for caregivers in India, I must note one problem: the membership in the larger caregiver forums is usually from outside India, and many of the queries and comments assume a very different culture and very different types of system and support. Discussions on end-of-life care, legal and financial issues, use of services, availability and regulation of helpers, all are based on a very different set up. That means many suggestions can be used only partially.

So what can I suggest caregivers in India who are looking for online support?

Firstly, online support groups as such are definitely worth considering. Online groups provide 24×7 availability of a forum to post. The sense of community helps. You may get empathetic responses and feel less isolated, and you may get some useful responses.

If you already know some other caregivers with whom you share some trust/ rapport, getting together and creating an informal online group is worth considering. Of course, expectations need to be limited, and such groups may not suit caregivers whose situation is very unusual and different from that of all the existing members. And members need to understand that such groups cannot be depended on for medical advice.

Also, please do look at existing dementia forums/ caregiver forums run by volunteers/ organizations/ groups of concerned persons. They will reduce your sense of isolation and give you some idea of the problems and solutions others use. Even when the exchanges in such forums don’t always suit your context, they could contain useful pointers. Also, look for online support groups set up for special situations, such as for specific types of dementia (Lewy Body, FTD).

A good approach is to join multiple groups, and understand which type of need each of them can meet. Use these groups depending on the fit, participating according to where you feel comfortable sharing your problems and also sharing your suggestions for the problems others face.

Here are a few things to keep in mind before participating in an online group.

Groups have different degrees of privacy, and even if a group is supposed to be private and if posts are kept private and confidential as per the technical platform used, ultimately the actual implementation depends on the other members, too. If you are posting something very personal, and are very particular that no one should be able to link your posts to you, consider groups where you can use a pseudonym and do not share details that could identify you.

Some groups (such as groups on Facebook) may be confidential, but you need to enroll with your real name. Members can click through your name from a post you made in the group and see your public profile. Keep that in mind if that seems to be a problem to you.

Also, in very large groups, keep in mind that your family members and friends (or their friends) may also join. Keep that in mind when posting details or rants.

Well, those are my thoughts and observations related to caregivers considering online support groups, and I would love to hear from you about what your own experiences have been on the effectiveness and usefulness of such groups, or your suggestions to caregivers on this.

If you are a concerned person trying to help persons living with dementia, you may be considering setting up an in-person group or an online group. I have created two draft documents that put together my thoughts on what setting up and running online groups and in-person groups involve. Both these documents are available online and also for download, and you can refer to them. I would appreciate any comments you have, so that I can refine the drafts and release improved versions. The page where you can view the documents or download them is here: Create dementia care support groups (includes download). The two individual documents are available for download at Setting up and maintaining an online caregiver forum to support dementia caregivers (PDF file) and In-person Dementia Support Group Meeting Guidance Document (PDF file).

I really would like to hear from you, either as comments below or as an email (check my contact page to know my email id).

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About Swapna Kishore
I'm a writer, blogger, and resource person for dementia/ caregiving in India. I have also been a dementia caregiver for well over a decade, and am deeply concerned about dementia care in India; on this blog I share my personal caregiving journey, my experiences as a resource person for dementia care, and musings on life, aging, dementia in India, and such sundries. More about me and the work I do for dementia care. For structured information on dementia, for discussions, tools and tips on caregiving issues, for resources in India, and for caregiver interviews, please check my website http://dementiacarenotes.in (or its Hindi version, http://dementiahindi.com). For videos on dementia caregiving (English and Hindi), check the youtube channel here.

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