6 simple ways to help a family caregiver

Family caregiving can be overwhelming, but so can trying to figure out how to help a family caregiver.

You probably know one — or more — in your family, immediate or extended. Or in your neighborhood, your parish, your workplace.

They’re pretty much everywhere and, often, pretty hard to spot. It’s harder still to appreciate all they’re going through, to understand how inadequate they feel about the care they’re providing and how lonely they can be.

The challenges

Caregivers can be racked with guilt for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is they want to do a better job. It can be difficult for them to realize that just as they’re never going to be perfect in any other part of their life — spouse, son or daughter, parent, grandparent, sibling, friend, coworker — they aren’t perfect at caregiving either.

And the loneliness? If they’re a frontline, primary caregiver, it can be a solitary existence. Partly because of what the work demands, but also partly because family, friends and others seem to fade into the distance.

Perhaps you’ve faded away. You’ve hesitated. You haven’t come forward because, honestly, you don’t know how to help.

A few simple suggestions

With that in mind, here are some concrete ways to be helpful and supportive to a family caregiver you know:

1. Forget “I can’t do much.” That’s true. And not true. Even doing a little, from your point of view, can be a lot from theirs. Dropping off a batch of brownies. (And not feeling slighted because you aren’t invited in.) Or, if you live a distance away, ordering a treat of some kind and having it delivered to their home. Sending a card in the mail. Or an email. Or a text. Letting them know that you’re having a Mass said for them and their intentions. That they’re in your prayers.

So small. So inexpensive. Taking so little of your time.

It’s letting them know they aren’t forgotten. That they aren’t alone.

2. Play the “club-member” card. It could be you’ve been a caregiver, or are one now, and so you have a pretty good idea of what your family member or friend is going through. You don’t know exactly. (It’s like parenthood or marriage: no two homes or situations are identical.)

By sincerely asking how they’re doing, by talking a little bit of what is was like (or is like) for you, caregivers can be inclined to open up more than they would with others. In effect, that one-on-one sharing is a tiny, informal support group.

Does that mean you should avoid them because you’ve never been a caregiver? Of course not! Sometimes they may just want someone to listen to them. Sometimes they may want to talk about something other than caregiving. (Some good, old-fashioned parish gossip. Uh, that is, some catching up on who’s done what at the parish lately.)

3. When you offer to help, include saying: “I’m not sure what you’d like me to do. What would you like me to do? What can I do?” Odds are the response will be, “Thank you but no. I’m doing OK.” There can a variety of reasons for that.

Maybe they are doing fine. Right now. But your making the same offer a week or two from now might bring a different response.

Maybe they have a concern about maintaining their care-receiver’s privacy and dignity.

Maybe they were raised to believe one doesn’t ask for help. Or accept it when it’s offered. They don’t want any form of “charity.”

Maybe, when asked, truly nothing comes to mind. If that’s the case, it can be good to have some specific suggestions. Pick up something at the store? Mow the lawn? Rake the leaves? Shovel the walks? Weed the gardens?

Bring a casserole or a batch of cookies or some double lattes and scones? Drive them both to a doctor’s appointment? Sit with their care-receiver for an hour (or more) so they can have a chance to get other things done or just take a nap? Set it up so you do that once a week or twice a month on a regular basis?

4. Encourage them to keep your offer in mind and to jot down a “chore” or “favor” when they think of something you can do. Let them know they can contact you about it. Ask them if they have any items when you get back in touch with them. Again, it may seem so small to you but has been looming large for them.

5. Find out if they’d like an extraordinary minister of the Eucharist to come by with Communion for both care-receiver and caregiver. It may be they can’t get to Mass and haven’t been for quite a while. But they haven’t considered Communion being brought to them or they weren’t even aware of that option. If it’s OK with them, arrange for that to happen, choosing a time and day of the week that’s best for them. The same goes for anointing of the sick and arranging for a parish priest to visit. (Let them know, in either case, the house doesn’t have to be clean and they aren’t expected to be host or hostess.)

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6. Get them a “caregiver packet” from the Friends of St. John the Caregiver (FSJC.org). It’s free and includes caregiver prayer books, holy cards and more. (Yes, if you’re a caregiver, order one for yourself!)

[Full disclosure: The author and his late wife, Monica, founded this ministry in 2005. All its material is free.]

What about the don’ts?

Those are the dos. But here are the things you really want to avoid doing with a family caregiver:

1. Don’t force your “help” on them. They have enough stress already.

2. Don’t be a know-it-all because you’ve been a caregiver yourself. (Again, each case is unique.)

3. Don’t be nosy, pushing for medical details.

4. Don’t tell others private details of what you learn about the situation.

5. Don’t suggest ... wackadoodle ... remedies. (Yes, we’re talking to you, “apple-cider-vinegar-cures-everything” people.)

6. Don’t disappear once the care-receiver has passed away. Those who are grieving need your love, contact, help and prayers, too.

Bill Dodds writes from Washington.

Ways Your Parish Can Help Family Caregivers
Many caregivers do not see themselves as such. Shutterstock
Parish members who are caregivers may not use that word to describe themselves because they truly don’t see themselves as that. It’s not uncommon for a caregiver to define his or her role as “just helping Mom (or Dad, or my husband, or my wife, or my child with special needs) with a few things.” What this means is that when the parish announces a new service or resource for caregivers, the caregivers themselves may not realize it applies to them and that it’s being offered to help them. Caregivers have extremely busy schedules and little or no energy to spare, so it can be difficult for them to attend a parish event, even one designed just for them. And because caregiving is very personal and caregivers in a parish may be uncomfortable with any form of public recognition, here are some suggestions for starting or enhancing a ministry to caregivers: