Updated: Oct 24, 2022
A family caregiver is a non-professional who provides unpaid care and assistance to a family member with chronic health conditions or disabilities, usually within their home. These caregivers provide much needed physical and emotional support as well as companionship for the person they are caring for. Sadly, it is very easy and quite common for the needs of the caregiver to get lost during this time, as the focus is solely on the individual they are caring for.
Many of us have someone like this in our lives, be it an adult caring for an aging or ailing parent or relative, a spouse caring for an injured or health-compromised partner, a parent caring for a special needs child, or any other type of care. We love these individuals and want to support them but often we simply do not know how.
Here are several practical ways that you can support any caregivers in your life (please note that many of these are also ways to support a grieving person):
It is important that you recognize and accommodate the social limitations a caregiver may have. Depending on their circumstances, many family caregivers have restrictions on their time and a limited ability to leave the house to meet up casually. Therefore, you may need to make the effort to visit them at home and work around their schedule more than your own. Arrange visits in advance at a time that works best for the caregiver. Avoid surprise drop-in visits, which can be inconvenient, as many caregiving tasks are performed on a set schedule. Also, reach out with an occasional “no need to respond” text, which shows you are thinking of them but also alleviates the caregiver from the obligation of having to reply.
Listen without judgement and without interrupting even to some things that may be difficult or uncomfortable for you to hear. Caregivers are often tired, frustrated, lonely, overwhelmed, and stressed, particularly if they are providing round-the-clock care. Therefore, you help the most when you offer them an outlet by just listening and acknowledging their feelings. It is human nature to try and fix things or make people feel better by offering suggestions and solutions. Try to avoid this while listening. Quite often, the caregiver has already exhausted many suggestions and ideas, or they simply understand the reality of their circumstances better than you do. However, if you believe you have a unique suggestion you can introduce it into a conversation for the caregiver to take or leave. Just be selective with your ideas and offer them without pressure.
Be aware that caregivers can suffer from burn out as a result of the myriad duties and responsibilities they have and from the extra stresses associated with the caregiver role, particularly on a 24-hour basis. Therefore, patience and kindness can go a long way towards the good mental health of a caregiver. They often feel comforted just by being heard and having another person recognize how difficult their current circumstances may be. Offering practical help can also contribute to the caregiver’s wellbeing as it eliminates tasks from their to-do list.
Offer Practical Help
Many family caregivers will not ask for help for a variety of reasons, so take the initiative and offer services that will give the caregiver some relief. These services could include watching the kids for an afternoon, dropping off groceries, watering a garden, scheduling a laundry service, or picking up and returning library books. For a caregiver, many of these menial tasks can feel like extra loads that need to be tended to. Having another person offer to take a couple of these obligations off their plate as either a one-off or on a regular basis can be a huge support and ease the pressure felt by the caregiver. However, always confirm that what you do or what you propose is actually helpful. More importantly, ensure that you are not taking away tasks that the caregiver enjoys doing or that gives them a break from being inside the house such as walking the dog or mowing the lawn. Similarly, if you want to make dinner one night, it's best to confirm that in advance (so you don't drop off food after they've already cooked) and ensure that food preferences and dietary restrictions are accommodated.
If possible, give them a caregiving break
Everyone’s situation is different, and some circumstances require specific medical care or training. However, whenever possible, offering the caregiver a couple of hours of relief can do wonders for their emotional, physical, and mental health. The simple act of just visiting with and offering companionship to the individual receiving care also affords the added benefit of providing a change in their day, especially if they are housebound. Organizing a chain of visitors may be particularly helpful, as the burden is lessened for everyone when more people participate.
Employers need to recognize that individuals who provide care for a family member have unique needs and obligations. Sensitivity and flexibility is crucial for supporting an employee’s work productivity and overall health. They may need to leave early for medical appointments or come in late when extra care is required in the mornings or when support individuals have not showed up. It is important that you understand that their time is significantly impacted or even dictated by the requirements of the person requiring care. They may also need flexibility in terms of not just when they work, but also how and where. For more tips on how you as an employer can support an employee in a caregiving role, the Canadian government has some suggestions here.
I will be facilitating HHA's first virtual Caregivers Death Café on Tuesday, October 18th at 7:00PM. You can register to attend here.
Cari Ferguson is a grief and death educator. She is also HHA’s Communications Manager and Death Education Coordinator. You can learn more about Cari at www.strongwinds.ca.