Managing Arthritis

Building Support Communities

Building Support Communities

Tips for Creating Your Own Support Group

People who have chronic health conditions like arthritis often find themselves faced with many challenges. There will likely be pain, fear of what may lie ahead, and possibly changes in your abilities. All of these can be very frightening to manage on your own. That’s why many people turn to a support group for help.  Sharing experiences and problem-solving with others can be a great way to achieve a sense of personal control and talk through some of the issues impacting your quality of life.

A support group can help address feelings of isolation and provides a forum to discuss the challenges you might not share in other settings. Mutual support can lead to new friendships as well as an increased sense of acceptance, belonging, and self-esteem.

If you’re interested in beginning a support group but you’re not sure how, here are a few key tips to help you get started.

Making a Support Group Work

People join a support group to share experiences, insights, challenges and successes as they relate to a common concern, such as arthritis. Support group members work together to run the group and make decisions, while also taking responsibility for creating an encouraging and inclusive environment.

A successful group needs people who:

  • Know what it’s like to have arthritis
  • Care about and are accepting of others
  • Want to help and be helped by others
  • Share their hopeful attitude
  • Are willing to pitch in and share the duties of organizing group
  • Want to take a chance and get the group started

The First Steps

To get your group started, find one or two other people who are interested in helping and can join you in exploring ideas for your support group. You’ll want to start by figuring out how large you want the group to be, whether relatives/caregivers can be part of the group, and how you’ll reach out to and find new members. Next, think about where you would meet (a home? a community centre? a café?), when and how often you should meet, and how long meetings should be. Taking care of all the “logistics” at the start can make running the support group a smoother experience.

The People in the Group

Consider how you’ll connect with members of the group from the beginning: Will there be name tags? A sign-in sheet? A greeter to welcome members? Think about how to make people feel welcome each session with an opener or greeting, and how you’ll address any concerns members may have. Everyone has a role to play in ensuring the success of the group, whether that is by attending and participating or by helping to organize coffee or tea for the group.

Meeting Members’ Needs

Now that you’ve covered the basics, it’s time to consider how your group will meet its members’ needs. In the beginning stages, it is very important to find out why members come out to the group and what they expect to get out of it, so that you and the group members can help meet each other’s needs. Attention needs to be given to promoting humor – laughter is good medicine! An appropriate joke or story is always appreciated and can provide a good opening or closing to a session. Members more often stay involved if there is a feeling of friendship and cohesiveness in the group. The group needs to provide members with a feeling of belonging and togetherness.

Group Programs

No one wants support group meetings to become dull, predictable and stale. Sessions need to have variety in content as well as variety in the way they are conducted to provide “something new.” Each session should have familiar aspects – like a welcome and a coffee break – along with something new, such as a creative portion or guests. You could use a variety of formats to fuel your discussion, such as short lectures, videos, art activities, or brainstorming. You should also include time for demonstrations, such as daily living recommendations or exercise examples.

Establishing Group Guidelines

It can be helpful to discuss as a group any guidelines you would like to establish to ensure respectful and inclusive discussion.  This might include items such as: share speaking time, avoid judgment, speak from personal experience; avoid telling others what to do, etc.  Also, as challenging as life can be with arthritis, it’s important to maintain optimism as a group.  While sharing difficulties can be an important part of peer-to-peer support, no one wants to leave the group feeling worse than when they arrived.

Don’t Forget You

It takes courage to agree to a new challenge. If it doesn’t work out on your first try, that’s alright! The most successful people also have failures because they were willing to take a risk and try something new. No one can fault you if you’ve done the best you could. If this is your first attempt at starting a group, make sure you take care of yourself in the process, lay the ground work and keep up the necessary maintenance of the group (planning, coordinating, recruiting members). Most importantly, delegate responsibility to others in the group! They may be happy to help out and could even become leaders themselves in the future.

Starting and running a support group can be a great way to meet new people in your community and help others out, while getting help in return. Learn more about the role of social interaction in managing chronic illness in our Mental Health & Well-Being online learning module.