Starting a Short-term Support Group

One way to bring the AHA project to your community is by starting your own HIV and Aging support group.  A model for starting a group can be found in Aging with HIV: A Gay Man’s Guide (pg. 221-223) and is reprinted below.  

Pre-group planning

Purpose: Taking some time to prepare for your new group can give you the opportunity to anticipate challenges and take steps to enhance its success.  Some issues to consider are:

  • Membership – Who will be invited to join the group and how will they be recruited (word of mouth, flier, an existing group)?  How many members?  (I often begin a group when I have at least 6 people to start, but aim for 8 to 10 members.)  How much diversity (race, age, background, etc.) of membership will assist in discussion and encourage growth?
  • Leadership – Will there be a professional facilitator?  Peer leaders?  Will the leadership remain constant or rotate?  More than one facilitator?  If you are forming a peer led group I recommend having a psychotherapist available for consultation or referral if the need arises.
  • Location – Where will the group meet?  If at an agency or organization is the space confirmed for the full run of the group?  If at someone’s home, what will happen if they drop out?  Is the space conveniently located, well lit, quiet, comfortable?
  • Structure/content – There are many ways to run a group.  I recommend beginning each session with a check-in go round, moving into the exercise and leaving time for feedback at the end.  You should begin to think about what structure will work best for your group.
  • Group rules – The guidelines to be followed that will ensure that the time is shared and that all people feel safe and comfortable.  Among the issues to consider are: confidentiality, tardiness, attendance, respect, how to handle conflict and whether cross-talk is allowed.  These issues will be ironed out with the group members during the group’s first meetings.

Week 1 – Introductions

Purpose: Getting to know each other and the group as a whole.

The group leader(s) will begin the group stating why they formed the group and ask each member to go around the room stating why they are there, and what they hope to gain from the experience.

After a brief statement about confidentiality the group members will start laying down the group rules (see pre-group planning).  I advise limiting the time of this discussion.  Unresolved issues can be revisited next week.

Members are encouraged to tell “their stories.”  Questions you can use to prompt discussion are: What does aging with HIV mean to you?  How do you feel about growing older?  (questions from preface)?  Or, you can follow up on points made in the initial go around.

Wrap-up.  What did you get out of the first meeting?  What didn’t you get, but hope to?  Will you come back?  What issues are still on the table for next week?

Homework:  Read chapter 1 and complete the assignment.

Weeks 2-10 – Aging Means Changing

Purpose: Using the book as a guide, you will join each other in a reevaluation of your lives, identifying the changes, sometimes shared, sometimes unique to each member, that you have undergone as you have been aging with HIV.

Check-in:  How did you feel about last week’s session?  How are you feeling about being here today?  Are there any unresolved issues to discuss?

Discuss any issues from previous week.

Discuss the chapter and assignment.  Group members may want to bring in their homework, work in it in the group, or discuss their overall impressions from the reading.

Wrap-up to review the session, how people are doing, and the choosing the homework assignment for the following week.

*Week 10 homework assignment:  Read all of Section II answering questions and completing assignments on you own.    Once you have identified how you have gotten stuck in your adaptation to aging with HIV, be prepared to talk about it in the group.

Week 11&12 – Identify Challenges

Purpose: Group members will help each other identify the common and unique ways each has gotten stuck in their adaptation to aging.

Follow the same format as weeks 1-10 (check in go round, unresolved issues, discussion, wrap-up.)

Discussion of “getting stuck” will be more free-flowing, as members should be more comfortable with the group process.  Leaders can refer to questions and exercises from the chapters in order to facilitate discussion.  Each member will be encouraged to identify at least one area of his life in which he feels that he has been stagnating.

Homework: Read section III

Weeks 13&14 – Steps toward optimal aging

Purpose:  The group members will strategies to help each other find his own path toward optimal aging with HIV and to use the group sessions to set clear goals and objectives.

Use the discussion time to develop a 5-year plan with the help of the group.  Come up with a vision for your future and determine what steps you need to take to make those goals a reality.  Use the exercise in step 9 as a guide.  Participants can help each other by giving feedback, ideas and encouragement.

*If you have more time, you can extend the group’s process.  In a six-month group, weeks 13-14 can be expanded to ten weeks.  Each meeting can address one step, helping each other utilize the steps in your daily lives.

Weeks 15&16 – Goodbyes

Purpose: The group has been through a unique process together and should take the time to review what you’ve accomplished, reflect on the help you’ve received, and anticipate the support and tools you need to continue the work on their own.

Some questions to consider during the termination phase are: Did you get what you expected?  How have you grown?  What will you take with you from the experience?  What will you do with this time now that the group is ending?  Identify one person who touched you in the group.  Tell them how they made a difference in your life.  Even if you decide to stay in touch informally, this is the end of your relationships in the group.  Make sure you say goodbye to each member and the group as a whole.

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