How have you changed as a person?
It’s a question I asked three experienced family caregivers during a panel I moderated on Family Caregiver Day, April 3. Their answers revealed a lot about what we can all do to better support friends who are looking after someone with a health condition.
“I’m probably far more aware of other people’s challenges,” said Linda, a retired secondary school administrator, whose husband was diagnosed with Alzheimer disease in 2009. “When I see someone who is struggling, I appreciate what they’re going through more than I might have a few years ago.”
Cheryl, a young mom who became a caregiver when her own mother went through a mental health crisis, echoed Linda’s sentiments. Now, when she sees a friend who is struggling, she asks different questions than she might have before. That’s largely because she understands how difficult it is to ask for help.
Her advice to people who are trying to reach out to friends who are family caregivers? “Don’t ask how they’re doing,” she said. “Because usually the people who are struggling the most don’t know.”
Instead of asking, “How are you?” Cheryl suggested saying, “You look tired. Is there something I can help you with? Are you hungry? Can I bring you food?” If someone admits to being stressed, say, “Would it be helpful for me to a, b, c, d for you?”
This approach is far more effective than simply saying, “Let me know if you need anything,” which assumes the person can tell you what they need. Even if the person knows what would help, they may be reluctant to ask for it. By making a practical and assertive offer of help, you relieve them of that responsibility at a time when they’re feeling overwhelmed.
That’s not to say that family caregivers who are willing to ask for help don’t encounter obstacles as well. Louise, whose husband was diagnosed with Alzheimer-related dementia when their children were 9 and 14, recounted her experience. “In the beginning, friends would say, ‘Well what do you need?’” she recalled. And she might suggest that they come over to stay with her husband for an hour so she could take one of her kids somewhere. Sometimes she’d get the response, “Oh well, I don’t know if I could do that.” But the same person might be willing to drop by with food. It was left up to her to sort out what various people were comfortable doing. As this played out, some friends started disappearing. “That was really hard,” she said.
Over the course of our discussion, Linda, Cheryl and Louise offered frank assessments of several challenges they faced as family caregivers. They also shared some advice. Here are some other questions I asked them:
- How prepared were you to become a family caregiver?
- How much of a challenge was it to juggle your caregiving responsibilities with other responsibilities in your life? Were there things you did to try to strike a balance?
- What changed in your relationship with the person you were looking after?