“More than 65 million people, 29% of the U.S. population, provide care for a chronically ill, disabled, or aged family member or friend during any given year and spend an average of 20 hours per week providing care.”
-National Alliance for Caregiving in collaboration with AARP; 2009
Caregivers experience a level of stress that is often misunderstood. Long-term caregivers may suffer deep emotional upset, and burnout with little relief. The caregivers of traumatic brain injury survivors are people who have been called to walk an extraordinary caregiving journey, often without warning or preparation.
How can we help? Are there practical ways to incorporate the “It takes a village” philosophy into the lives of caregivers that you know? The answer is yes, with a little work and a lot of heart, you can assist those who are in a constant caregiving role.
As a caregiver who often feels lonely and overwhelmed, I’d like to offer some practical solutions that have been helpful to me.
1. Get Specific
Instead of saying, “Let me know what I can do to help,” come up with something you can do, and present it. This is something we are all guilty of doing from time to time. As someone who has been in the throes of caregiving for four years, I find it’s most helpful when someone designs a specific plan and sets it into motion.
For example, “I’d like to prepare dinner for your family once a month. You pick a day, and we will make it happen.” Or, “Let’s plan on my giving you a break, the second Wednesday of every month from 4-7.” This helps the caregiver to see that a break is in sight and set up activities of her own.
It’s important to remember that long-term caregiving may make someone feel as if her resources have been depleted, making it more difficult to reach out. When someone offers something specific that will help in a concrete way, it eases part of the burden for the caregiver involved.
2. Offer Clear Praise
Avoid saying things like, “All things considered; you are doing a good job.” Or, “You are doing the best that you can.” Instead go for specific, genuine praise that doesn’t leave room for questions about what the words you are saying might mean. For example, “I know it’s been a challenging four years, you are handling it so well.” Or a simple, “I just want to let you know I care about you.” Build the caregiver up, recognizing that their bucket may feel pretty empty at times, and they need a reserve to refill it.
Once, after an unexpected hospitalization, a dear friend looked at me and said with tears in her eyes, “You are my hero.” I knew that her sentiments were genuine. For the next several days, when I felt defeated, I focused on her praise. It not only lifted my spirit but also made me work harder in my role as a caregiver. Genuine praise is the wind in a caregiver’s sail.
3. Practice Compassion
The caregiver is often pulled in many directions from sun-up to sundown. After spending a month with us, my thirty-year-old nephew said to me, “I don’t know how you do it.”
“Do what?” I asked.
His response: “Life.”
From afar it looks easier than it is. After a time, caregivers pick up on the fact that they can sound like complainers, so instead they often hold things in. Holding in feelings can result in growing frustration. People who offer compassionate understanding when I am overwhelmed allow me to vent in healthy ways.
When a caregiver comes to you and is comfortable enough to share her frustration, please stop, look, and listen. In other words, take time to take in what her reality may look and feel like from her perspective. People often put caregivers on a pedestal, but they get grouchy, groggy and Grinch-like too. Acknowledging the difficulties they face allows them to get to the next step. Denial is unhealthy for everyone, but when faced with continual strain, it is important to have reality checks and friends with whom you can honestly share your feelings.
4. Recognize the Importance of Human Touch
If your finances allow it, consider the gift of massage for a caregiver. Recently, I gave myself this gift and was struck with how much better it made me feel. The massage had barely started, and I could feel the sadness and tension in my entire body. I told myself to relax and let the nurturing take place. Within a few minutes, while lying on the massage table, I began to weep. I was then overcome with such deep sadness, that sobs began to erupt. The therapist’s touch had released a trigger in my body to let some of the pain inside come to the outside. My reaction was not uncommon in this setting. Often, just providing someone a safe place is all that person needs to have the release occur. Caregivers often get in a cycle of not making space for self-care; sometimes a gift is the nudge they need to break away for an hour or so.
5. Less Judgment, More Lovement
I have shared this phrase before in my posts and blogs, but it bears repeating. The caregiver’s life is demanding. We are presented with challenging scenarios, which are new to us. We have to make the best decisions we can in a given set of circumstances. And we make mistakes.
We must decide on things like when and if we should call an ambulance. We have to be the voice for a person who often resents our having to take that role on for them, and we also have to find our own lives in the mix of fully assisting someone else.
Most caregivers I know deal with some level of anxiety, guilt, and frustration that resulted from their caregiving role. At the end of the day, they do need more love, because they are required to give more love away.
These are just a few ways to help caregivers be the best they can be.