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Care for the caregivers in your life

Approximately 43.5 million people have given unpaid care to an adult or child in the last twelve months.1 Caregivers juggle countless responsibilities, from arranging doctors’ visits to giving medical treatment to handling daily needs like bathing or feeding. Many take on these duties out of love, without pay or even much thanks or recognition. Caregivers balance managing a household, raising children, legal and financial planning, and more. And on top of all that, more than half of them work outside the home, too.

If you want to help support a friend who looks after someone else, it’s important to know that every caregiver has a unique situation and their needs are subject to change. If you’re not sure where to begin, simply ask your friend, “What do you need right now?” Here are some ideas for how to show a caregiver how much you appreciate them.

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1

Embrace honesty and empathy

Caregivers face the painful reality that their loved one is aging, injured, or sick and may not get better. They may worry about how much time they have left together or start feeling the pain of loss, even before the person they care for passes away. They can also feel sad that the person they love may be forever changed (“I miss how funny Dad was when he was healthy”), which in turn can lead to feelings of guilt.

These feelings, though painful, are also completely normal. And while you can’t take away your friend’s stress or sadness, there are ways to help them cope with the emotions that caregiving brings.

How you can help:

  • Just being there is a sign of support. It’s okay if you don’t know what to say.
  • Ask how they’re doing, and give them a chance to vent if they need it.
  • Encourage your friend to be honest about what they’re feeling, then listen empathetically to what they have to say.
  • If they aren’t comfortable talking to you, suggest other ways they can work through their feelings, like visiting a counselor or starting a journal.
  • Don’t pretend to understand what they’re going through. Just tell them you’re there for them and want to help.
  • Be forgiving. Anyone can seem angry and irritable when they’re feeling burned out. Try not to take it personally.
  • Call or text them regularly to check in. Looking after a loved one can be isolating.2
  • If they want to reminisce about happier times, especially about the person they’re caring for, join them. Find family photos, tell favorite stories. It’s okay to think back and smile—or cry—about their mom’s famous practical jokes or their son’s first word.

2

Offer to pitch in—and encourage them to accept it

Caring for a loved one can be rewarding, but it also takes a toll. The majority of caregivers say they feel unprepared, uninformed, and worried that they aren’t doing a good job.3 They may feel that they have little control over the situation—which can lead to burnout, especially when combined with a long list of day-to-day demands. You can help lighten the burden. Research indicates that caregivers with supportive social networks of relatives and friends are more resilient.4

How you can help:

  • Pitch in with chores around the house: cook, clean, do yard work.
  • If the caregiver has children, take the kids out for a fun afternoon so your friend can have some quiet time.
  • Does someone need a ride to the doctor? Basketball practice? Volunteer to drive.
  • If your friend is overwhelmed trying to update other family members, offer to be the family contact person for a little while.
  • If you can, help your friend find answers to medical, legal, financial, or insurance questions.
  • Offer to go to the pharmacy to pick up medications.
  • Clean and stock the fridge with prepared foods.
  • Arrange for a meal delivery service, or ask other friends to sign up to bring over a meal.
  • If your friend is thoroughly overwhelmed, suggest that they join a support group. It’s a powerful way to share their experience with others. Recruit a backup caregiver so they have time to attend.

3

Support them at family gatherings

Family gatherings often happen around holidays and can be tricky for some caregivers. These get-togethers mean spending time with siblings, aunts, uncles, or cousins who could have a lot of questions or concerns about their ailing family member. They may offer unsolicited advice about medical decisions or financial or legal planning. Often, they have only good intentions—but this sudden scrutiny might make the caregiver feel as if their efforts aren’t appreciated or that they’re failing. You can help by being a buffer between your friend and other family members or by serving as a sounding board if they need to let off some steam.

How you can help:

  • Step in as caregiver for a few hours, so your friend has time to talk with other family members.
  • If your friend is expected to cook for their family, help them make the meal. Even better, prepare it elsewhere, bring it over, and do the dishes before you leave.
  • Host your friend’s family for a few hours—have them over to your house, invite them to a restaurant or out for a walk.
  • Take your friend out. Let their family spend time alone with the person needing care. Sometimes family members don’t understand how hard caregiving is until they do it themselves.
  • If your friend is worried about their house being untidy before their family arrives, help clean.
  • Reassure them that if they don’t want to dive into long-standing family issues during the visit, that’s fine, too.
  • Encourage friends and family members not to take it personally if they’re not included in decisions about the person needing care.
  • Create a plan for how your friend can deal with relatives who may seem critical. Consider being ready to drop by with a family-friendly movie or suggestions for an outing if your friend calls asking for backup.
  • Plan an enjoyable activity so your friend has something to look forward to once everyone goes home.

4

Encourage self-care

Caregivers often put their own needs last, but self-care is vital and can provide a boost of motivation and encouragement to keep going. Caregivers who find the time to engage in activities they enjoy are also more likely to say that they are coping well.5

How you can help:

  • Encourage your friend to get regular exercise, eat well, and sleep.
  • Go on a walk together.
  • Brainstorm with them other ways to de-stress. Reading? Spending time in nature? Taking a class?
  • Do something fun together: practice yoga, play a game, watch a TV show.
  • Help them practice focusing on what’s going well in their life, which is proven to lift a person’s spirits. Journal together or try these Heart Warmer cards.
  • Surprise them with a treat: flowers, their favorite magazine.
  • Help your friend get out of the house. Take over their caregiving responsibilities for an afternoon so they can take a break.
  • If it’s possible, give a gift of a few hours of paid help. Remind your friend that they’ll give better care if they have a chance to relax a little.
  • Look into respite (short-term) care. It’s a covered Medicare hospice benefit, so it may be available at no cost. Resources include the ARCH National Respite Network and the VA (for military veterans).

Caregiving is a 24/7 commitment. People do it out of love. As a friend, you can reflect that love back to them. Even small gestures of appreciation and support can make a big difference. They tell your friend that you’re there for them, what they do is incredibly important, and they’re not alone.

Endnotes

  1. https://www.caregiver.org/caregiver-statistics-demographics.
  2. http://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/caregivers/in-depth/alzheimers/art-20048212?pg=2.
  3. B. A. Given and L. Northouse, “Who cares for family caregivers of patients with cancer?,” Clinical Journal of Oncology Nursing 15, no. 5 (2011): 451–52.
  4. F. İnci and A. Temel, “The effect of the support program on the resilience of female family caregivers of stroke patients: Randomized controlled trial,” Applied Nursing Research 32 (2016): 233–40.
  5. A. Harmell, E. Chattillion, S. Roepke, and B. Mausbach, “A Review of the Psychobiology of Dementia Caregiving: A Focus on Resilience Factors,” Current Psychiatry Reports 13, no. 3 (2011): 219–24; Adam Grant, Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success (New York: Viking Penguin, 2013).
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