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Facilitator Skills

Each Dementia Support Group Facilitator brings her or his own unique skill set to the role. Some facilitators might be health care professionals, such as nurses or special care unit directors. Some might be admissions counselors or activities staff. For some, running a support group might be a new responsibility. Even for those of us trained as social workers or counselors, feeling comfortable as a group facilitator can take time.

Here are the traits and skills we believe are needed for a good dementia support group facilitator.

  • Able to keep in mind the goal of the group
  • Able to maintain the balance of letting the group set direction while keeping the group focused
  • Adept at recognizing and understanding nonverbal and verbal cues
  • Encourages members to develop community and build rapport
  • Ability to discern tension
  • Demonstrate empathy, verbal following, validation of feelings
  • Recognizes signs of apathy, depression, caregiver burn-out
  • Creates an atmosphere which allows for sharing and is supportive

They can keep the group meeting from getting stuck, but they can also step back. They don’t have a need to insert their own personality or agenda into the group. Trying to not solve is very important and they really need to trust the people.
Without Warning member on what makes a good group facilitator

  • Know the person’s stories so that when they aren’t able to share it, you can do so for them
  • Know the common themes and emotions of people with dementia
  • Don’t minimize a person’s experiences or feelings
  • Don’t feel that you have to solve problems. Allowing people to express their feelings is important.
  • Allow time for silence. After a period of quiet often comes the most powerful responses
  • Encourage people to care for each other
  • Treat people with dignity and respect
  • Respond to the emotions expressed, not always the words
  • At the end of each session, thank everyone for sharing and support, perhaps respond to specific instances. Use the last few minutes to end with a feeling of community

To run a group, the old motto, “It takes a village,” you go into that group as a facilitator and you got a realize you’re dealing with a lot of experts because they’re all dealing with this issue and every one of them brings to the table a different set of skills and then how they work with the reality of this situation, uh, just teaches the facilitator as much as -- as we learn from the facilitator.
Without Warning Member on what makes a good Group Facilitator

When Facilitating a Group for People With Dementia

  • Be patient. Don’t talk over a person with dementia, even if they are struggling to put their thoughts into words. Watch how people respond to you. Some might like having help thinking of the word they can’t think of but some do not. As the facilitator, it is okay to not resolve a confusing moment but instead talk about how it must feel to not be able to think of words you want to say
  • Create structure to help people with dementia feel comfortable

I’ll be sitting in the room and just listening to everybody talking and everything, and then all of a sudden something lights up. Then you blurt it out. Our leader, she really comes back to you. She never lets things go. When somebody says something, she comes back to that person, draws them out of it. Draws the information out of it. Everybody feels like a part of it.
Without Warning member on what makes a good Group Facilitator

When Facilitating a Group for Caregivers

  • We find there is more time for conversation if we start with new families or if a person has any specific issues. This seemed to work better than going around the circle at each meeting to have each person introduce themselves. This would often lead to same stories being shared each month.
  • We now divide families into three different groups based on stages of Alzheimer's. You might be offering one group, which means you might have people in different stages of the disease. This will impact your discussions, such as issues typical for early, middle, and late stage.

The role of the facilitator is to guide a group by direction and it’s extremely important to have someone to keep the conversation going and keep it in the right direction.
Without Warning member on the what makes a good Group Facilitator

When to Share Personal Examples

Many of us will experience dementia in our personal lives. Maybe a neighbor, someone in your social community or even a family members. When facilitating a support group for people with dementia, it can become difficult to know when or if you should share your personal situations. Any sharing done from a facilitator should be in a effort to move the conversation or to encourage deeper thought. A facilitator should not share to receive support from the group. 

It is always a difficult decision on whether to share personal examples with a support group and one which should be considered carefully.

I have several family members who have had dementia. When I'm running a support group I think about whether it is helpful to talk about them - will my sharing help the groups members to consider their situations in a different way. I never want to add to their stress or burden.
Dementia Support Group Leader

  • Collective Memories "We become the holder of each other's memories." Collective Memories "We become the holder of each other's memories."

I really enjoy watching the group provide support for each other an how they become their own community of support for each other.