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Your First Meeting

The first meeting of a support group of any kind is critical, as it is the first impression each member will have of the group, the facilitator, and the other members. This first interaction sets the stage for future meetings and interactions and, therefore, advance preparation on the part of the facilitator is needed. Take time to consider the suggestions on the Creating the Framework and Logistics pages of this website. The information there will help prepare for your first meeting. 

When working with groups associated with dementia, advance training and preparation is even more important. Following are tips and suggestions for the new facilitator to consider:

When announcing the establishment of the dementia support group, include a brief needs assessment for members to complete in advance:

  • Ask for some basic information about their family situation
  • What are your specific areas of concern?
  • How do you think the group might be able to help you?
  • Have you been part of a support group in the past?
  • If so, was this experience helpful?

If a survey is used, the facilitator should review the responses and consider his or her own goals for the group. The purpose of the group should be discussed at the very first meeting, with input from each member. Talking through each member’s personal goals and agenda will help build consensus.

It is likely that many, if not all, members will not know each other prior to the first meeting, and so it is critical to make everyone feel welcomed and secure. Confidentiality rules must be covered so that everyone is clear that all comments made in the group will not be shared outside of the group.

Guidelines should be shared so that everyone understands basic rules, such as listening when someone else is speaking, no side conversations, being punctual, etc. Group members may also offer additional suggestions for guidelines; these can be posted where everyone can see them.

In addition to reviewing confidentiality, the facilitator must work to create a safe space where members will feel comfortable sharing their personal struggles and challenges.

Showing empathy at every stage of the group dynamic is important, and with first meetings, the facilitator should consider how each new member might be feeling. Perhaps apprehensive about being there, ambivalent feelings about support groups in general, feelings of being overwhelmed and frustrated with their personal situations and the changes happening in their lives, anger at their situation, feelings of isolation, and so much more. The facilitator must be mindful of possible underlying emotions and be able to respond appropriately.

After everyone is seated, an ice-breaker exercise might be helpful to allow everyone to relax and begin to feel comfortable sharing their personal stories. Stigma is a common element with dementia and therefore it is important to find simple and straightforward ways to put new members at ease. One simple exercise is to ask the group to develop 4 or 5 questions they would like to know about the other members, then each member can introduce themselves and answer each of those questions.

Building rapport takes time, and the first meeting is the first step in that process. The facilitator should show a calm, open, and warm demeanor, demonstrating that he or she understands and cares about the group members’ feelings and concerns.

Resource:  Social Work with Groups, Charles H. Zastrow, MSW, PhD, Brooks/Cole Empowerment Series