Caregiving the Caregiver: Five Ways to Help a Friend

Terry Cleveland
Caregiving the Caregiver: Five Ways to Help a Friend

I have known Rosemary for nearly thirty years.  Her twins, Mary and Anna, and my daughter, Rachel, were born in 1988, the same year we met while waddling our pregnant bodies around the circle of our Colchester, Vermont neighborhood. My three-year-old son, Ben, rode around us on his Hot Wheel as we discussed our due dates, our swollen bodies, and our insatiable appetites. Her husband, Hugh, persuaded my husband, Tom, to begin racing bicycles. It was a couple’s match made in heaven.

Fast forward to 2002.  By then, the Rawlins had moved from Vermont to Virginia, our children were no longer babies, and our husbands were in the best shapes of their lives as racers. Rosemary and I talked nearly every day, keeping the friendship alive with our worldviews, our angst about the teenage girls we were raising, and how our next visit was fast approaching. My daughter, Rachel, and I had plane tickets for our trip to Richmond over the girls’ April vacation.

One week before our journey, Rosemary called me with the news that Hugh had been struck by a car, that he was in a coma, and she had no idea if he would survive.  It was a desperate and emotional call, and I had no intention of canceling my trip south because I knew she needed help.  Rachel and I boarded the plane.  I was a bundle of nerves wondering what I would encounter.  Rachel was quiet, a rarity for a thirteen-year-old, probably aware of my unspoken fears. She was excited to see Anna and Mary, but worried about them, too.

As you all know, Hugh has recovered and to this day, welcomes us with open arms when we visit, ready for a bike ride with Tom.

In the years since the accident, I have learned some valuable lessons about watching a dear and loving friend experience a traumatic event and who ultimately became a caregiver without warning.  Here are five lessons that I learned while trying to help Rosemary.

  1. Be there.  Listen to her fears. Cry with her. Moreover, when possible, laugh with her. I remember a night two days after we arrived in Richmond.  The girls were putting on a musical for us, Rosemary and I were drinking wine, and she doubted she would be able to continue writing résumés for her business.  The messages on the answering machine piled up with people wondering if she was open or if she had completed their résumé.  I told her, “How about your voice on the answering machine saying, ‘My husband is in a coma right now, but if you keep calling and leaving your number, I’m sure to get back to you soon.’”  We had a good laugh and then she did put a more professional message on the machine to quell the calls. Sometimes a caregiver needs help simplifying her life.
  2. Be there.  Not everyone can handle the stress of watching a friend struggle with disaster.  Sometimes, medical issues are hard to deal with because we are afraid of them.  And sometimes, the issues bring us face to face with something in our lives that is tough to handle.  No matter the reason, never feel guilty for not wanting to dive into the life of a caregiver. You can be supportive in other ways.  Does the lawn need mowing or the snow need shoveling? Are the weeds in the garden threatening to take over the yard?  Are the mail and the newspapers piling up, unnoticed? Be the unseen hero. Again, taking over these chores helps to simplify a caregiver’s life.
  3. Be there.  Food is the one thing a stressed caregiver and her family will need but will not want to think about. That’s why caregivers often resort to fast-food. Start a food chain or just be one link.  If the caregiver and the family can count on your mac and cheese every Wednesday night, their world gets a little bit less stressful. A few days into my visit with Rosemary, I made a pasta dish out of whatever was in the cupboard and the refrigerator. Apparently, it was the best food Rosemary ate, because to this day, she talks about it!  Sometimes, the comfort we get from food is all we need at the moment.
  4. Be there.  If the family has children, they are under tremendous stress, too.  Their worry and their feelings often aren’t addressed in the tumult of the day.  During our week in Richmond, and without the knowledge of the city (and before GPS was around), I drove three teenaged girls into town on a shopping trip.  We laughed at crazy clothes we tried on, and they gave me the gift of levity.  It was beneficial to us all. And for a couple of hours, Rosemary could concentrate solely on Hugh.
  5. Be there. When the patient comes home, we often think the family is whole again and we back away from helping.  We are optimistic that all is “FINE,” But as we all know, FINE has its own definition.  The caregiver will be f&*%ed up, insecure, neurotic, and emotional for a long time. Keep in touch.  Keep the kids busy.  Mow the lawn. And just maybe, make an impromptu casserole that will someday be the best meal they ever ate.
Posted on BrainLine May 3, 2017.

Comments (10)

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This is the best description ever…
The caregiver will be f&*%ed up, insecure, neurotic, and emotional for a long time.

While each of these are all great ideas, there is one that I feel is equally important. Someone to stay with the (injured, disabled, sick) family member so that the primary caregiver can spend quality time with family (ie, other children, spouse ….) when all together the ‘patient’ often requires so much attention that the P caregiver has little time fir the rest of those who need time with them as well. I lost so much time with my younger children as they were growing up, while trying to accommodate the needs of my injured child. Years and time I can never get back. What I would have given for someone to just come in and relieve me for an hour or two that I might could take my younger children to the park or out for ice cream or to a movie… anything… it’s those growing years that I missed so much of….

I think this is an article which should have been composed. as a guardian myself, I can value reality in this letter.

Ahh thank you for writing this - honestly it’s such a help! Im actually here as I’m doing some research on behalf of my mother as we’re currently looking at various options for her in terms of caregiving. Sadly my father passed away 6 years ago and the older my mother gets the more she is struggling to look after herself. I’ve offered many times for her to come and live with me and my husband and our children but she wants to stay within her home as long as she can - I think it’s mostly to do with my dad and the memories if I’m honest - also she’s worry she’d be a ‘burden’ even though she absolutely wouldn't be - bless her. Anyway I think that visiting in home care may be the best option for her at the minute and would make her the most happy which is obviously the most important thing! However I'm having trouble in deciding what company I should go through? Does anyone know of any good recommendations of a company that they’ve had previous experience with? A colleague sent me a link to this company that she uses with her father (this is the link she sent: - has anyone heard of/used them? I just want to gather as much information as I can before I proceed with anything. I really want to make sure that my mother is going to have the best care possible so I would absolutely love any recommendations or insights anyone could offer me into the whole world of caregiving as it’s all a bit new to me! Thank you so much everyone - I’m terribly sorry for rambling x

I found myself a caregiver a few years ago. My mom came from out of town without her even asking. When I got back from the hospital she asked if I was hungry, it was at that point I realized I had not had anything for 24 hour. She was there until he came home about a week, just looking after me while I looked after him and a small home based business.. I found the people I though would be there for me/us were having their own mini crisis of their own and just could not help or ran in the other direction?. There were a couple of people that helped right out of the blue, thank you! I felt so alone, then there is the money side of things, that's another story as well.  Two years later he was pretty well back to normal with a few exception. And I'm exhausted to the core. I think we were lucky as house paid for and veggie garden working well, and I sure can chop firewood now.

Don't be afraid to lend a hand to someone in this situation. We all need support from one another and don't assume anything without observing and asking.

I love every word of this share. Most of all, I am feeling number five. All of it. Rock on is sisterhood and being there! 

So remember this trip and still have wonderful memories of our bikini fashion show for you and mom, the ice cream at the mallx and nonstop giggles that always happen when together. I had honestly forgotten it was during this trying time for us. Thank you for still coming, for letting us be tennage girls, and giving us a break from the marathon of trauma we were experiencing. You'll never know how much it meant to just have you and your support. Love you momma c!!

All Great Ideas... <3

This is so accurate! After my husband's trauma, 7 yrs ago, I didn't have a ton of support. My kids were my life line, however they were dealing with their own stresses of the trauma. I am still my husband's caregiver, and these tips are useful no matter how long it has been since the accident. Sometimes the smallest deed or act of kindness means the world.