by Judie Rappaport, author of Eldercare 911
When a friend, family member, or neighbor accepts the responsibility of caring for an elderly relative or friend, many of us automatically look for a way to help and find we don’t know what kind of assistance to offer. If you have a friend or neighbor who is caring for a parent, grandmother, aunt, or elderly spouse and want to offer your support, begin with these recommendations and let your imagination create others.
1. Call and ask the caregiver how the patient AND the caregiver are feeling. Most people ask only about the ill person, forgetting that it’s equally important to care for the caregiver. Studies show those caring for an elderly parent or relative suffer higher levels of stress, anxiety, and illnesses than non-caregivers. You can help add comfort to the harsh emotional and physical burdens of the daily caregiving routine by a simple act of recognition-remembering to ask the caregiver, “How are you holding up?”
2. If you have to leave a voice-mail message, don’t ask the caregiver or ill person to “call me back.” Caregivers are usually overwhelmed with daily chores and responsibilities. Asking for a call back just adds another obligation to their “to do” list. Instead, say, “Don’t worry about calling me back. Just know I’m thinking of you and I’ll call you back another time. If you need a shoulder, or just want to vent, I’m here for you.” Instead of adding another item to the caregiver’s long “to do” list, you’ve sent a message of friendship and compassion. Remember, you’ve made a promise, so be sure and call back within a day or two.
3. Your time may be the most practical and valued gift of all. Let the caregiver know you’re going to the grocery store on Tuesday and offer to pick up her groceries while you’re there. Be sure and get a list and ask if specific brands are important. Ditto for dry cleaning, prescriptions, or other errands. When you prepare dinner for yourself or your family, it takes very little time to cook extra portions, freeze them and drop off a bag of dinners as often as you can.
4. If you’re comfortable sitting with the patient for a few hours, offer your time so the caregiver can leave the house and take a break. Be frank about you will do and what you don’t want to do: You may be comfortable reading to the patient, or watching TV with them, but uncomfortable feeding or toileting them. Explain your feelings, saying, “Pat, I want this to work out well so I can offer to help again. I’m happy to sit with your mom, read to her, or watch TV with her, but I’m too uncomfortable to help with any hands-on assistance. I’d also like to be sure I can reach you if I have a problem. Is that okay with you?”
5. Resist the urge to tell the caregiver horror stories about your cousin or friend’s aunt who went through the same or a similar illness. Third or fourth hand medical stories, particularly those told by lay people, are rarely accurate. We all react to medical problems differently. Your cousin might have had an adverse reaction to a medication that someone else tolerates without incident. Or, your friend’s aunt may have hallucinated after she took an over-the-counter product that millions of other people found beneficial without incident. Don’t add fear and dread to the caregiver’s already considerable worries.
6. Recognize that when illness strikes, family members or caregivers may be so overwhelmed that they cannot help themselves or their loved ones. At those times, they need an advocate. You can provide emotional and practical help by helping them find one. Log on to the Internet and find out what resources are available for the caregiver and patient. Look for treatments, medical centers, support groups, general information, medical trials, time saving tips, caregiver bulletin boards and advice from illness-related groups, then print the information out and give or send it to the caregiver. If you find information you believe is particularly important, highlight it. If the caregiver doesn’t use it, don’t press the subject, just let it go and feel good about yourself for trying to help.
7. Say something encouraging or warming. You don’t have to reach for what to say, the answer is all around you. Medical science is now reaping the reward of decades of research and is continually blessing us with new and better treatments, sometimes cures that enable patients to manage many medical problems while maintaining a satisfactory quality of life. So tell your friend to have hope for the future, because tomorrow or the next day, the doctor might call – as he did for my sister a few months ago – and say, “We’ve got something new for you. Come on in.” And when my sister met with the specialist, the “new, improved” medication worked for her and improved her life dramatically. Never give up. My sister had been waiting for ten years.
8. Finally, be available to listen. Caregivers often feel bewildered, overburdened, afraid, and alone. Learn to sit still and listen. Remember this isn’t about you and your experiences or beliefs. This is about the caregiver you’re there to help. Aside from an accurate diagnosis and medical treatment, nothing is as important as a trusted friend who will take the time to listen to fears and innermost thoughts. Don’t pass judgment by trying to change the caregiver’s grief, fear, anger, or guilt – you can’t feel them or understand them from their perspective and it’s unlikely you have the training to suggest how the caregiver should or shouldn’t feel.
A caregiver friend of mine recently said, “I’m not so much stunned about today as I am about the future. Oh my God. What he’s been through and what he’ll go through. One of the things that keeps me going is what you told me years ago about new treatments being available every day.” They are. Be a friend. Practice sharing HOPE.