Building and Maintaining a Support Group

Family Caregiving September 23, 2015 Print Friendly and PDF

The Brookdale Foundation’s Relatives As Parents Program (RAPP) ( began in 1996. RAPP encourages the creation or expansion of supportive services to grandparents and other relatives who serve as primary caregivers of children because the parents are not able to do so. The program awards seed grants of $10,000 over a two-year period to state public agencies and local, non-profit organizations. Currently, RAPPs provide extensive services, primarily to relative caregivers caring for children outside the foster care system, in 45 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico.

Building and maintaining support groups are key pieces of the Brookdale RAPP Model. The objective of RAPP is to enable agencies to provide accessible, replicable, group and individual supportive services to relative caregivers beyond the two-year grant period. These suggestions have allowed RAPP support groups to build and sustain quality, cost-effective services for caregivers.

Building Support Groups

Responsiveness to Caregiver Needs and the Community

Programmatic initiatives must be responsive to the needs of the relative caregivers that support groups seek to serve. Meeting dates and times should be regular, but flexible to accommodate caregivers. Regular meeting times also ensure that everyone, including caregivers and referral sources, know when the group meets. It is also important to give some thought to the group’s name. Some caregivers may not want to go to a “support group” but will visit “Chat and Chews,” “Coffee and Conversation” groups and groups that provide fun caregiver or intergenerational events like monthly “Family Spa Night” or “Family Fun Night.” When groups start, caregivers have a lot of questions about the myriad issues they face. Meetings that are informative and answer questions, about legal issues, available benefits and where to access those services, are very attractive and much appreciated. Caregivers will come to the group for the information provided. As the group grows and questions are answered, being responsive to the needs of caregivers means that support group facilitators listen to caregiver needs and respond. Since the group is constantly changing to address the needs of the participants, the group’s focus is constantly changing and this leads to continuity.

Support group facilitators also address the needs of the community by bringing the issues faced by this special population to the attention of the community. RAPP state, local and regional initiatives have been very effective at educating professionals, legislators, caregivers and other advocates on the issues and needs of caregivers. Legislators, departments of social services, child welfare agencies, school counselors, employee assistance program staff at local businesses and community organizations have all benefited from information about the obstacles to services faced by caregivers and have learned how they can help. RAPPs have provided much-needed information in a variety of ways including community forums, state and local conferences and legislative breakfasts. RAPP state forces bring key stakeholders together, at the state level, to identify and address gaps in services to relative caregiver families.

The Importance of Advisory Committees

Support group facilitators know that advisory committees are key to ensuring a successful program. Composed of professionals from a variety of backgrounds who come together regularly to identify issues confronted by caregivers, advisory committee members develop plans to have those issues addressed and help educate the community. Advisory committee members also help support groups by marketing the group, providing referrals and articles for newsletters, making presentations at group meetings and assisting groups with programmatic initiatives, fundraising and ideas for continuity.

Establish Trust!

Support group facilitators should not only know the issues faced by grandparents and other relatives raising children, but they should also recognize the importance of establishing trust with caregivers and with the organizations that will become referral sources for the program. No matter how great a program is or what needed services are offered, if trust is not established with the caregivers and the organizations that will be referral sources for the group, caregivers will not come and organizations will not refer them. Facilitators should, therefore, follow-up, in person or by phone, with organizations to whom they have sent fliers and support group brochures. By doing so, they ensure that these possible referral sources get to know them and feel confident that the caregivers referred will get the assistance they need from the program. Facilitators should also ensure that caregivers know that whatever is discussed by the group remains confidential - that will help establish trust. Caregivers may not want to discuss the reasons children are in their care and will not do so unless and until they have established a relationship with the group’s facilitator and/or the other caregivers in the group. This may take time. It may not be possible to start a support group immediately. Intergenerational activities and holiday gatherings can help caregiver families meet each other and have fun together. These activities may be important and necessary first steps in establishing support groups and trust.

Program Incentives and Marketing

Support group incentives include the provision of pot luck dinners, snacks, refreshments, door prizes, food baskets, supermarket gift cards, gift certificates, tickets to museums, concerts or other recreational events and the distribution of much-needed items like school supplies, socks, toys, books and clothes. RAPPs establish relationships with community partners to identify and access donations that can be offered as incentives.

Once a “core” group of caregivers are attending meetings, these caregivers can, in turn, help the group with its outreach efforts. Word of mouth from caregivers who have been helped by the program, provides invaluable marketing. Aggressive and constant outreach is key to the success of any support group. Outreach and marketing can include public service announcements, meeting announcements and news releases to local papers that not just give meeting dates and times, but also advertise upcoming events or include calendars listing those events. Advertising the group in community organizations like senior centers, hospitals, doctor and dental offices, day care centers, head starts, schools, legal aid/legal services offices, juvenile/family court, libraries, employee assistance offices and businesses in your community like banks, grocery stores, supermarkets and beauty/barber shops is also important because these are the places your caregivers visit. Faith-based organizations, like churches and synagogues, can advertise your group. Organizations that provide benefits, like food stamps, Medicaid and cash assistance can also help facilitators reach out to caregivers. Finally, don’t forget to advertise on free cable TV channels, the radio and via community fairs and display booths at malls. Recreational centers, like YM/YWCAs and bowling alleys, can provide discounted or free activities.

Easy-to-read fliers and brochures, with the name of a contact person, are very important to the success of a group. Everyone in your agency should know about the availability of the support group and what to tell caregivers who call for assistance. Caregivers who call should feel that this will be the place to find help and support. If your services are free and confidential, those reading your fliers should know that as well! Registration with AARP and Generations United’s databases of support groups are also great ways to advertise a support group.

It is important to recognize that outreach and marketing are ongoing program activities that last throughout the life of the program and do not and should not end when groups reach their target number of caregivers. Outreach and marketing should also be done to “court” possible donors. By keeping possible funders abreast of group activities, you ensure that they are aware of your great work! Phone calls, meeting reminders and newsletters are also good ways to encourage attendance at meetings and show concern for and interest in the relative caregivers who have expressed an interest in or come to the group.

Maintaining Support Groups

Establish Collaborative Partnerships

Support groups grow and flourish when they recognize the strengths of collaborative partnerships. The Foundation encourages RAPPs to collaborate with a wide range of agencies on the local, state and national levels. These partnerships enable programs to promote community awareness and access to cash or in-kind resources, like:

  • space to hold support group meetings
  • food and refreshments
  • presenters for group meetings
  • articles for newsletters
  • transportation assistance

Volunteers can also:

  • make calls to remind caregivers of meetings
  • find out how they are doing
  • send cards on special or important dates
  • seek out and access tickets, coupons or gift certificates to offer as incentives to attend support group meetings.

Collaborations help build and maintain programs, allowing them to grow and expand by helping them provide services that would not otherwise be available to caregivers and children through current funding streams. A community map helps groups identify community resources and brainstorm ways to approach community organizations to help create or expand services to caregivers and their families. Once community resources are identified, they can be used to develop creative opportunities for outreach, fundraising and collaborations. These, in turn, can lead to group development, maintenance and continuity.

Grow with Your Group

As the group grows, it is important to listen to and rely on caregivers to tell group facilitators what they need and want from the group. Once initial questions are answered, caregivers may want more recreational or specific educational opportunities. It is important to constantly survey them to find out what their needs are and to respond to those needs. RAPPs take advantage of fun events to distribute questionnaires asking for caregiver input on the group’s future.

Leverage Resources

Brookdale Foundation funding brings visibility and credibility to caregiver support groups. RAPPs are encouraged to use their Brookdale grant to leverage funding opportunities that will enable them to meet the needs of the caregivers and children they serve. By leveraging resources, whether cash or in-kind, RAPPs have been able to obtain funding to help build and maintain their support groups.

Expand Services to Meet Children’s Needs

An important and necessary way to build on and expand supportive services to caregivers is by providing services and activities for children. Although caregivers will think twice about coming to meetings for themselves, they will come if their children enjoy the meetings and want to attend. Any time programs provide services to children, they provide respite. Childcare, children’s activities, caregiver activities and intergenerational activities all afford caregivers a break from their caregiving responsibilities and are very much appreciated. Children benefit by getting to know each other and realize that they are not the only ones being cared for by grandparents or other relatives. Collaborations with parks, museums, theatres and other recreational centers can help groups achieve this goal.

Additional Resources

  • State Fact Sheets: a collaboration of national organizations to provide valuable information to relative caregivers and their advocates, includes census data on the number of grandparent caregivers and the children they are raising; a comprehensive list of local programs, resources and services; state foster care policies for grandparent and other relative caregivers; information about key public benefit programs; important state laws and national organizations that may be of help. To view the State Fact Sheets, visit
  • Fact Sheets on the issues confronted by relative caregivers, including one on support groups. To obtain a copy of Generation United’s Second Intergenerational Action Agenda from its Second National Symposium on Grandparents and Other Relatives Raising Children, visit Generations United’s website,
  • Visit the Brookdale Foundation website,, for
    • Promising Practices in Encouraging & Supporting Grandparents and Relatives Raising Children," a collaboration of the National Association of Area Agencies on Aging ( and the Brookdale Foundation that is intended to make the aging network across the nation aware of important and successful Relatives as Parents Programs (RAPPs) operated by Area Agencies on Aging and to encourage the replication of RAPP supportive services to relative caregivers by the many Area Agencies on Aging that serve older adults
    • Cooperative Extension Resources developed in conjunction with RAPPs
      • The Best Practices Manual For Service Providers Assisting Kinship Caregivers in the State of Michigan, developed by our Michigan State RAPP.
      • The Parenting the Second Time Around Curriculum for group facilitators and The Ties That Bind: Training for Caregivers," a curriculum that focuses on parental substance abuse and its impact on relative caregiving families.
      • Relatives Raising Children: A Guide to Finding Help and Hope," by Marianne Takas, which is based upon what long-term relative caregivers (and family services professionals who work with them) have learned about raising relative children. It is designed to provide useful information, strategies, and ideas, and to help link caregivers with others who can help.

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This work is supported by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture, New Technologies for Ag Extension project.