By Debbie Swanson for Next Avenue
When a friend or family member is knee-deep in caring for a loved one, a common gesture is to drop off a casserole, or remind him or her to “let me know what you need.” But as genuine as your intentions may be, they may not be the best ways to ease the caregiver’s load.
“The person who offers help almost has to be a detective to figure out what the caregiver actually wants or needs,” says Marty Schreiber, a former governor of Wisconsin, advocate and caregiver. Once you do break through, he adds, the resulting respite will be truly appreciated.
But just how do you decipher the caregiver’s needs when he or she is hesitant to share – or maybe doesn’t even know – what could help? Here are some tips on how to analyze the situation. Then, combine creativity with common sense to formulate a warm and welcoming suggestion.
What Brings The Caregiver Joy?
Browsing an antique shop, pruning in the garden, hiking with the dog — everyone has those little things they relish doing from time to time. Enabling those activities to happen is one area where you can really make a difference.
If you knew this person pre-caregiving, you can probably think of things he or she has now put on the back burner. Your direct offer to sit with the caregiver’s loved one while the carer goes out to enjoy a specific activity may be met with surprise. It may also be hard to resist, particularly if you offer a gentle reminder, should your first attempt be ignored.
Of course, this can be difficult if you’re unfamiliar with the caregiver’s hobbies or interests. Try taking a cue from the seasons: Suggest he or she go browsing at the local farmers market or help the person “put up, or take down, holiday decorations,” adds Leslie Koc, coach and speaker on spousal caregiving from Bend, Ore.
If the caregiver is reluctant to leave home, find a way for the person to enjoy interests at home. “Share a list of best movies to watch, and help them create a Netflix online list. Schedule a time to watch a movie with them,” Koc says.
How Can You Give a Caregiver a Break
Escape from routine worries or chores can go a long way toward recharging a weary caregiver. However, suggesting leaving the loved one for an entire afternoon or evening may seem overwhelming. Instead, think of ways to add small breaks to the caregiver’s day.
“Bring lunch ‘in a box’ to enjoy indoors or outdoors,” Koc says. “Include everything, so that when the lunch is finished, there are no dishes to wash.” Pack a few extras, enabling the caregiver to enjoy a few days of no-effort lunches over the week.
An indulgence is another type of break. “Deliver a dessert that is made or sliced in portion sizes that can be frozen after the first pieces are eaten,” Koc adds.
Something else that may be welcome, but is less often extended, is arranging to take the care recipient out of the house (provided he or she is physically able). The caregiver may relish a brief interlude of time alone at home.
For the best results, approach this with a specific plan, like this: “I’d like to take Jane out for a walk — do you want me at 1:30 or 2?” Schreiber suggests.
How Can You Fill In?
When couples have been together many years, it’s common that each partner has settled into certain areas of responsibility: One does the shopping and cooking, another does taxes and budgeting. Now, the caregiver may be anxious about those things his or her partner used to take care of, so, if you can help in some way, it could mean a lot.
Here are a couple of examples: “I’m pretty good with technology, if your computer or programmable thermostat gives you grief” or, “I know just the person who would love tending to Joan’s lovely gardens; what day is best for you?”
If you aren’t familiar with the couple or don’t know what the household needs are, try asking family members. Or ask the caregiver: “What doesn’t work or needs attention? Caregivers can make up a list if asked that specific question,” Koc says.
Does The Caregiver Have Someone To Talk To?
Caring for someone else usually leads to a plethora of feelings — worry, resentment, fear, exhaustion. One simple way to help is to just listen. Call or text the caregiver at a time when you think the person might be less busy. Or drop by with coffee or a cool drink and be willing to step inside if invited. If the caregiver begins to talk about his or her problems, try to be non-judgmental and focus on listening rather than offering advice.
I Don’t Know You That Well, But…
When a less-familiar acquaintance or coworker suddenly lands in a caregiving role, it can be harder to figure out the best way to help. Try connecting the person to a resource, perhaps an organization focused on the disease or condition the loved one is dealing with, suggests C. Grace Whiting, president and CEO of the National Alliance for Caregiving in Bethesda, Md.
“Information about patient advocacy groups can be a great way to get them connected to a network of caregivers,” notes Whiting.
Don’t be surprised if the individual doesn’t talk much about the particular caregiving role. “People may not feel comfortable talking about their situation (in the workplace) for fear that it will negatively impact their career,” Whiting says.
One way to help with that concern is to supply the person with some pertinent facts. If you are in a position to do so, “share information about workplace protections with all of your coworkers, rather than singling one out; programs like paid family leave, the federal Family and Medical Leave Act, telework and flextime,” Whiting says.
If you’re part of a group including the caregiver, such as coworkers or members of a club, you could pool your money to provide gift cards for, say, gasoline, food or coffee. Another great way a group can help is by creating a monthly calendar of care, distributing days for meal deliveries, snow or leaf removal, grocery pickup or someone to check in for a list of needed errands.
While it’s nice to come up with the perfect way to help a caregiver catch a break, remember that what matters most is simply stepping up and letting the person know you are there.
Being a caregiver is a challenging role, and one that can easily result in isolation or despair. But being a caring friend can help create a bright spot in what could be a difficult time.
Debbie Swanson is a freelance writer living north of Boston. She often writes about pet care, senior living and family topics.