Township Senior Services Director Pamela Mahn (left) and Cathaleen Roach, formerly the senior outreach coordinator for River Forest Township, hold the Innovative Senior Program of the Year Award outside the River Forest Public Library.

The Senior Services Department of Oak Park and River Forest Townships is starting a new grief support group for caregivers. The program is open to current or former family caregivers who have lost loved ones.

“This group provides a safe space for caregivers coping with the recent loss of their loved one to tell their stories, receive emotional support and offer validation of their experiences and feelings as they grieve,” Senior Services Director Pamela Mahn explained.

The entirely new program is free for people who live in Cook County or neighboring counties, according to department caregiver support specialist Devin Andrews.

Starting Sept. 15, the group will begin meeting on the first and third Thursday from 5:30 to 7 p.m. of each month via Zoom. Andrews will serve as the group’s facilitator. The meetings are loosely structured to create a laidback atmosphere, allowing the grieving caregivers the opportunity to steer the conversation and direct its flow.

“While I will introduce topics, it will be the mourners who will lead the conversation,” Andrews said.

Caregivers can register for the group and start attending meetings at any time. Andrews recommends interested caregivers reach out to him directly via email or telephone, so that he can walk them through the registration process.

 The plan, Andrews shared, is for participating caregivers to participate in the program for a full year. Should an extension prove necessary, the caregiver can continue attending sessions.

“If they’re having deeper issues that are prolonging their grief, then I would recommend they see a therapist,” Andrews said.

This is the department’s first caregiver support group purposely designed to navigate the grieving process. Andrews pitched the idea of starting the group after noticing that many caregivers, who went to support groups through the Senior Services Department, stopped attending following the deaths of their loved ones.

“They feel that, since because they’re no longer caregivers, they have no place there,” Andrews explained. 

The caregivers were left to grieve alone without the support of a community. Andrews’ research of available caregiver grief support groups yielded very few results.

While grief is universal, caregivers have a unique experience with it due to the nature of their work. They experience the sorrow of losing a loved one, but also the loss of their identities because taking care of someone involves putting that person’s needs above your own, according to Andrews.

“When you’re a caregiver, it’s more than just a duty; it becomes your identity,” Andrews said. “They essentially become lost in ways different from how other people would become lost when someone dies.”

If the caregiver cares for a person with needs that require around-the-clock care, the caregiver has little time to attend to personal matters or hobbies. When the person under their care dies, the newly gained free time leaves caregivers feeling empty and guilt ridden. Caregivers then fill those hours examining perceived shortcomings, questioning what they could have done better while their loved ones were alive.

Through this new program, the Senior Services Department aims to show caregivers that they are not alone in their sorrow and to help them cope with the profound feelings of loss that accompany the death of a loved one, while providing an outlet for personal rediscovery.

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