If you have never been a caregiver, there is a good chance you will be at some point in your life. If you don’t currently know a caregiver, you will eventually know a caregiver in your circle of family and friends.¹ Given this reality, we should be asking, “How can I support the caregivers in my life?” If you find yourself in this position of supporting a caregiver, it helps to know where to begin.
- Don’t disappear. Caregiving can be scary. Because the idea of sickness and dependence is so uncomfortable to us, people have a tendency to avoid caregivers. In becoming caregivers, people often find empty spaces where they once enjoyed a full circle of family and friends. While this is understandable, it is not easy for the caregiver. Nobody wants to walk the caregiving journey alone. In fact, one of the most common complaints caregivers express is “I am all alone,” or “Everyone has abandoned me.” So, be there. You can offer stability and normalcy in a place where the caregiver is trying to navigate a constantly shifting landscape.
- Remember to listen. If someone doesn’t make a hasty retreat from the life of a caregiver and decides to press on, there can be a natural tendency from loved ones to want to fix the hard things in a caregiver’s life. Is someone you know struggling with a particular aspect of caregiving? Explain to them a better way. Except, no–don’t do that. This impulse is often motivated by love and aims to be helpful, but those who act on it often end up hurting the caregiver in ways they couldn’t even imagine. Caregivers pour their hearts into the task of caregiving, and it is a sure recipe for hurt feelings if we come around and start telling them–however well-intentioned we are–how they can do a better job. Instead of trying to fix, just listen. Listen to their struggle, listen to their sadness, listen to their frustration, listen to their fears. Listen, listen, listen.
- Don’t judge, and don’t backseat drive. Nobody is perfect, and nobody is a perfect caregiver. We all make mistakes. If you had been a fly on the wall during my years as a caregiver, there would have been many times you could have pointed out how I could have done something better. But tearing caregivers down for their failures–even if unintentionally done–alienates them rather than encourages them. It is hard to be a caregiver, and we should show a great deal of compassion and understanding to someone struggling on that path. Backseat driving is a particularly common and problematic dynamic in family relations. A child might second-guess how one parent is caring for the other; one sibling might spend a lot of time telling another sibling how to care for their parent. If you have a family member who is a caregiver, you need to be very intentional about stepping back. It is hard, but if you don’t you could damage relationships irreparably.
- Do encourage. Besides experiencing a sense of being on the fringes of “normal” society, caregivers struggle with feeling undervalued and discouraged. “Nobody knows what I am going through,” many caregivers admit in an honest moment (and you will see it written over and over in caregiving forums online). “Nobody cares. Nobody understands.” So let the caregiver in your life know that you do care. Tell them how much you value what they are doing. Tell them that you recognize that it is hard. Let them know that what they are doing is very worthwhile. Honest, heartfelt encouragement can be the single most important thing you do for a caregiver.
- Be careful how you give advice. If you have first listened and encouraged and someone asks you for advice, it is okay to do so. Just be careful how you give it. Don’t say something like, “Well, I read in a book five years ago that you can solve your problem by….” and don’t say, “I heard that my neighbor’s second cousin’s wife dealt with your kind of problem by….” You might have remembered that book correctly, and maybe you got the story about your neighbor’s second cousin’s wife right–but even so, that kind of advice inadvertently makes a caregiver’s problems seem small. A book you read five years ago can solve their struggle. A story you heard third-hand is good enough to fix something they were unable to fix. These kinds of answers make people feel undervalued, and they often come across as dismissing or oversimplifying complex problems. Far better to answer a request for advice from your own personal experience. Even if you have never been a caregiver, you have gone through hard things in life–we all have. So share from your own hard experiences: “When I was really struggling, this is what I learned.” By sharing from your own experience, you implicitly make the caregiver’s struggles equal to your own. You might not solve their problems, but what you have given you have given from your own heart.
- Offer to help. People are often very hesitant to offer to help because they feel incapable of providing certain kinds of care. But you don’t have to take over the task of tending the individual in need of care in order to be a help. Whatever kind of help you feel equipped to give, be sure to communicate openly with the caregiver to make sure your overtures are truly helpful and not intrusive. If there are certain things you can’t do, just admit it up front and ask if there are other ways you could help. Cleaning the house, doing laundry, or getting groceries can be a huge help to a caregiver, and they are things we already do in our normal life. If you are able to take over for a caregiver and give them a few hours out of the house and free of responsibility, they might not be able to find words for how much your help means to them.
Often if we simply take time to be present in the life of a caregiver, to listen to them when they need to share, to vent, and to cry we have given all that they would ask. If we encourage them intentionally, we have given them what they need most. If we help in the small ways that we can, it is those small things which help caregivers get through the big things. Sometimes it is the quiet, everyday things that have the most power to make a difference in the life of a caregiver.
¹ Approximately 43.5 million caregivers have provided unpaid care to an adult or child in the last 12 months. [National Alliance for Caregiving and AARP. (2015). Caregiving in the U.S.]