How to Actually Help a Caregiver

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Caregiving is an issue that’s all too real, and there’s nothing pretty about it. It also is something with which I have had a lot of experience over the past five years. This week’s episode brought home a couple points I feel compelled to share. I believe everyone who tries to support caregivers has good intentions. But it doesn’t always work out that way. Hopefully, by sharing some ideas about how to actually help a caregiver, you can avoid some of the pitfalls that just make things harder for us.

Tip #1: Don’t offer to “do anything” unless you’re prepared to actually “do anything”.

I think lots of people feel empathy towards a friend or family member who is in a primary caregiver role. Good intentions come out and it’s very common for the phrase, “Let me know if I can do anything to help” to follow. In a few instances, I’ve tried to take someone up on those vague offers of help. Maybe the vagueness should have been a clue. I’ve reached out to the person offering and asked for help in a specific way. The response (three times now) has been that they would have to check their schedule.

Say something else. Offer something specific you’re willing to do. Better yet, just do The Thing you’re offering. But don’t offer “anything I can do to help”. It leaves me, at least, feeling silly for having tried to take you up on it. And if you’re not really in a position to help, just say that you’re praying or sending good wishes.

Tip #2: Stop telling me to “be sure and make time for self-care”.

This one will likely rub some people the wrong way. Before intensively caregiving, I was guilty of saying it, too. I know taking care of yourself is important, really, I do. But the constant barrage of self-care reprimands does only one thing.

It makes me feel like I’m failing.

And guess what? I am already on the Struggle Bus feeling like I’m not doing enough. Like I’m not finding the right balance of time and attention for my kids while caregiving for my parent. Like I should be doing more. So these well-intentioned reprimands end up making me feel even worse. Never better.

Instead, ask if you can have my kid over for the weekend.

Offer a small window of time when you’re available to come sit with my loved one so I can take a breather.

Bring a meal and visit for a few minutes.

Ask if you can bring me groceries.

Tip #3: Don’t say you know what I’m going through.

No, you don’t. You may have empathy, sympathy, or compassion. Maybe even all three. You may have lost the same parent I’m losing. But you’re not me and your parent wasn’t my parent. Your relationship with your parent wasn’t the same as mine. It ends up feeling like you are projecting your experience onto me. It feels like you’re making yourself feel better rather than trying to make me feel better. It also makes me feel like you are saying I should stop sharing what I’m experiencing because you’ve been there, done that.

I know your intentions are good.

Really, I do. But my job is to talk about hard stuff, and this is a hard one. I think there’s a book in me about the caregiving experience. It’s so much more than what anyone who hasn’t done it full time can imagine.

Caregivers truly want your support. We need it. And hopefully, there are a few ideas here on how you can give it in a more meaningful way without unintentionally making us feel worse.

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