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How to Help a Young Caregiver


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I know a phenomenally strong young woman who serves as the primary caregiver for her mother. Watching her put everything on hold (including medical school) to take the helm is both inspiring and heartbreaking. Nobody likes seeing someone spend their twenty-fifth birthday carefully measuring medications for a mother who doesn't even know it's their birthday — and so many people want to help. Unfortunately, most people aren't quite sure how.

I'm sure every caregiver is different, but here are some things I've observed from her experience (all given her stamp of approval) in case anyone out there is trying to support a caregiver.

Don't offer to do stuff, just do it.

At any given moment, a caregiver is thinking about a hundred zillion things: Which medication made mom nauseous last time? What happened to that leak in the basement? What multitude of family, friends and hospice nurses will be running in and out of the house today? Did I eat breakfast? Asking what you can do to help is very kind, but sparing her the managerial stress and simply finding something helpful to do is ten times kinder. She might not notice it or thank you, but that's when you know you've done it right. Empty the dishwasher, run a load of laundry, replace the orange juice in the fridge... you'll give her one less worry when she needs it most.

Stop saying "take care of yourself."

She knows, and she wants to. She's just too busy doing the aforementioned hundred zillion things. This is a very kind sentiment, but when it's literally impossible to take care of yourself because of all the work you have to do, the statement stings a bit.

Let her get out of the house.

Just because her mom is sick doesn't mean she never wants to grab a margarita or go for a run. But she may be anxious or even guilty about leaving her mom at home alone. Offer to run the house for just an hour so she can get an ounce of sanity and fresh air, and encourage her to take you up on it.

Don't break down on her.

For her, every day is full of sad moments. She knows you're grieving too, but when she's able to put on a brave face, do the same. There may be a time when she'll want someone to cry with, but in general, aim to relieve some of the sadness instead of adding to it.

You can be cheerful.

Of course you don't want to turn the place into a laugh factory, but there's no need for somber nods 24/7. She could probably use a bit of brightness and won't find it impertinent.

Please don't talk about the funeral (or send condolence cards).

We'll get there when we get there. Unless you're very close to her and volunteering to help with the ceremony so she knows it won't be one more thing that falls entirely on her plate, save it.

Don't force your presence.

Many people just want to be supportive, but they forget there are tons of people cycling in and out of the house every day. That stuff is stressful. She is so grateful you came, but please don't stay too long. If you're coming from out of town, book a hotel, even if she says there's a spare bedroom.

Food is necessary.

Unless the fridge is literally bursting at the seams, sending delicious food is a great idea. Package it in cheap Tupperware (she is keeping track of many things, but which dish belongs to who is not one of them) and put a date on it — she may not remember when it arrived, and the last thing she needs is people getting sick. While you're in the fridge, clear out anything that looks or smells old. Bonus tip: remind her to eat.

Take care of the grown-up stuff if you can.

Most twenty-somethings are still kind of clueless about many aspects of adult life. Most of us have never dealt with medical bills, figured out deeds to houses, or filed an insurance claim when a tree falls on the house and smashes two windows and a fence (true story, unfortunately). Even if she is intelligent and responsible, she's new to this and it's probably stressful. So do some of it for her — offer to call the insurance company, sort through mail, or help set up automatic payments.

Just ask.

Every caregiver wants something different, so it's always good to simply ask whether you're being as helpful and supportive as possible. She knows it may be intimidating to try to help her and will appreciate that you cared enough to ask.

Though I focused on the missteps, I've witnessed so many amazing people doing their best to help my friend. All the love and support pouring in is worth the occasional faux pas, so no need to walk on eggshells — she wouldn't want that, either. If your heart's in the right place, your best is enough.

Has anyone been in my friend's shoes? Would you add something to the list?

This blog was first published on Engaging the Patient as part of their Health Literacy Month Series. You can follow them on Twitter at @EmmiSolutions.


More Blog Posts by Tarah Knaresboro

author bio

Tarah Knaresboro is a writer on Emmi Solutions' Engaging the Patient blog, where she designs interactive phone calls, multimedia programs and decision aids to help patients and their families take more active roles in their care and to improve the transition from hospital to home. She studied neuroscience at Brown University and volunteered at a brain trauma center. You can follow her on Twitter at @tknaresboro.

Tags for this article:
Caregiving   Aging Well   Alzheimers Disease/Dementia   Nursing Homes/Home Health Care   Delirium   End-of-Life Planning   Organize your Health Care  

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