For nearly a decade, my devoted yet weary mom cared for my father, 24/7, until he passed at age 47. She simultaneously juggled an apartment crowded with kids and pets, cooked, cleaned, and did her best to navigate the confounding Veterans Administration (VA). She walked everywhere, except when she took three busses to get to the VA several towns away. It was the early 1970s, and support for caregivers was not part of our cultural consciousness.
This is a serious subject. Many, if not most caregivers have families, jobs, outside commitments. Not to mention, the same need for a fulfilling and balanced life just as the rest of us. Beyond feeling for them, we often want to do something, to help out in some way. The challenge is that we often don’t know how.
Barry J. Jacobs, writing for the AARP notes that “not all help is helpful” and encourages us to think beyond dropping by with the well-intentioned casserole. “Logistical, financial and especially emotional support are vital to bolstering caregivers who are struggling with extended caregiving. But in order to make a genuine difference, these efforts need to be carefully tailored to the particular caregiver’s circumstances, personality and preferences.”
I know that my mom could have used a boatload of help. But the point of looking at yesterday is to gain insight into living better and doing better today. Here are several specific ways you can support a caregiver in your life. Be sure to tailor your help to their needs.
Be there ✤ Empathize with the caregiver’s situation. Offer support by saying something like, “I know that you have a lot on your plate and I am always here to listen.” Or, “Caregiving isn’t easy. Just know that I am a text or a call away. I mean it.” Don’t give advice unless it is asked for.
Ask for specific ways you can help ✤ You might say, “I also want to be a pair of hands, so please tell me how I can be of help.” You may have to be persistent about this because the caregiver may just wave you off. If so, you might add “Let’s brainstorm together,” or “How about just one specific thing I can do right now for you?”
Offer to help in specific ways ✤ The more you know about the caregiver’s situation, the easier it will be to suggest concrete actions you can take to lighten their load. “Let me take that bedding over to the laundromat for you. I know you haven’t had the time and it gives me some reading time.” Substitute “cut the grass,” “walk Fido,” “do the food shopping” or some other task.
Help them to build a support team ✤ Offer to help them create a short list of people who might help in a variety of ways. This strategy can be very effective when family and close friends live nearby. Just engaging in this thought process can make the caregiver feel less alone.
Encourage them to take a break ✤ Many caregivers have lost the time and “freedom” to do the small things for themselves that translate into meaningful self -care. Whether it’s perusing the garden center, getting her nails done, or going to a yoga class, that break from the hands-on work of caregiving can be priceless.
Spend time with them ✤ Being a caregiver is often a lonely and isolating experience, even without a pandemic. Extend yourself. Offer to come by with coffees for the two of you, or to engage in some other activity the caregiver would enjoy.