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It happens slowly, then all at once. A family member starts to need help accomplishing tasks they used to do without issue: things like driving, cleaning, reading, or cooking. They may insist they’re fine or be completely oblivious to their struggle – they’ve coped with it as a slow change and may not recognize the difference. If you’ve started to notice these changes in your parents or someone else around you, it may be difficult to breach the subject. How do you tell the person who taught you to drive that they need to stop? How do you tell the sibling you grew up teasing that they need to accept your help? More broadly, how can you talk with your family member or care recipient about care in a constructive and productive way? Let’s discuss.

Making the Conversation Happen

One of the most crucial things for the long-term relationship with your care recipient is to have the formal conversation that they need your help. Don’t assume they know or will come to you when they’re ready, because that time may never come. Instead, plan for it.

  • Prepare for opposition.
    • They may not recognize their need.
    • They may feel uncomfortable and try to cut you short.
    • They may fear help as a threat to their independence.
  • Respond.
    • Bring in other family members/friends if needed.
    • Let them air their concerns and lend a comforting ear.
    • Remind them that your help will help them retain independence, not lose it.

Example of how to approach the conversation from Visiting Angel:

SCENARIO: You’re worried about your father’s ability to drive and he mentions heading to the grocery store.

SAY: “I see you’re planning to go to the grocery store. I think it would be a great idea to ride with [the neighbor/friend/spouse] next time or even hire a professional who can take you where you need to go. You could tell her exactly where you want to go and she’ll get you there. You’d be in control.”

Share Your Feelings and Set Boundaries

You have a new role to play, from a spouse/sibling/friend to caregiver, or an almost complete role-reversal in the case of a parent. This is uncomfortable for both of you. The easiest way to move past this discomfort is to talk it out.

It’s worth discussing how this situation makes you feel and what boundaries should be set in an honest but constructive way. Here are some talking points to consider:

  • The change in your roles and relationship
  • How they’d like treatment decisions made
  • Any changes you’re worried about in your life outside of care
  • What you want to share with one another
  • What they feel comfortable sharing with others (family, friends, etc.)

Listen to Their Feelings

Listening with an empathetic ear is a skill that takes work to cultivate. Many of us grew up listening to respond instead of listening to understand, and there’s a crucial difference between the two. By listening to understand, you’ll both come away from the conversation with a deeper and more positive connection. Let’s talk about how to do this briefly:

  • Stay quiet. Let them talk without interruption and leave an almost uncomfortable amount of silence between thoughts to ensure they’ve said what they need to.
  • Look at body language. Often what people say is not what they mean. These moments will stand out better if you can read what their heart and body say, not just their words.
  • Put away distractions. Silence your phone, flip it so it’s laying screen-down, and/or move it out of the room. These are signals to the other person that you’re fully listening and that they have your full attention.

Concluding Thoughts

Providing care to a loved one is a difficult topic of conversation – one that needs to be handled both firmly (clearly) and with care. By having direct conversations, discussing your concerns, setting boundaries, and understanding their perspective you’ll build a strong foundation for this shift in roles. Continue to check in and open a line of communication as time goes on to ensure you’re still on the same page.

The role of caregiver is tough, but by becoming one, you’re joining a large, strong, and helpful community of people who are or have been in your shoes. The California Caregiver Resource Centers were created with caregivers both in mind and at heart to be a free resource as you navigate the challenging role you’re in. We would love to connect you with your local Center, which can talk more about local programs for caregivers, answer your questions, and explain how they can best support you.

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