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Maybe it’s a close friend you see caring for her spouse who is slowly looking more tired and defeated. It could be your neighbor who is caring for their mother and their garden is starting to wilt because they no longer have time to maintain it. Or it could be your coworker who’s starting to lose or forget things more frequently at work, exhausted from caring for her grandfather all weekend. Whatever the situation, if you have a family caregiver in your life, you may wonder to yourself, “how can I help them?” In this article, we’re going to explore some ways to truly help the family caregiver in your life.

How to Help a Family Caregiver

Often, family caregivers are shouldering a lot of stress and responsibility. While it’s impossible to understand fully how they feel, there are ways you can help or show support.

  1. Listen, don’t advise.
    When we’re asked “how are you,” many of us default to, “fine” as our answer. If the caregiver in your life responds in this way, there are ways you can still provide a listening ear.

    Offer him/her your phone number if they don’t already have it and say something to the effect of, “I understand that caregiving is an extremely difficult and often overwhelming experience. Please don’t hesitate to reach out or let me know if you ever want to talk about it or how you’re doing.”

    While they aren’t likely to respond to this on the first mention, if you periodically remind them of your pledge to be there for them, they’ll come to you when they’re ready or in need of an ear.

    If you’re able to open someone up to a deeper conversation, then the best thing you can do is listen – don’t advise. Let them vent frustrations, stay quiet, and don’t try to fix them.

    Unless someone specifically asks for your help, the best thing you can do is nod, offer hugs, try to internalize their feelings, and ask gentle questions that signal they can keep talking. An ear to listen is infinitely more valuable than unsolicited advice, no matter how well-intentioned.
  2. Offer time.
    Caregivers are under a lot of pressure to maintain the person in their care’s life and routines. This often leaves caregivers with very little time for themselves. One of the best ways to offer help to a family caregiver is to ask them how you could free up some of their time.

    Some ideas include: running to the grocery store so they don’t have to, picking something up at the pharmacy, offering to sit with their loved one so they can take a break, offering to walk their dog or watch their kids, making them some freezer-safe home-cooked meals in disposable packaging so they don’t have to cook, or whatever they suggest would be helpful.

    Don’t be afraid to ask what would be impactful for them, because often well-intentioned friends and family can create added burdens when they make assumptions (like inviting a group of people to their home, cooking a meal with allergens in it, or giving that meal to them in a ceramic dish they now have to worry about returning to you, etc.)
  3. Remember to keep including them.
    Even if you are very sure the caregiver in your life is too busy to join an event, happy hour, or accept an invitation of any kind at this moment, it’s important to ensure you keep including them.

    The caregiver in your life is likely going through a shift in personal identity (from the child, grandchild, or spouse to the caregiver) and feeling isolated by that change. By including them in invitations without judgment or pressure to make an appearance, they will not also suspect that they’re losing their life outside of care as well.

    Allow them to make the choice of whether or not they can attend or be a part of something, don’t make that choice for them by assuming it’s a no and leaving them out entirely.
  4. Send resources they may find useful.
    They may not have time to research the local or national foundations, non-profits, scholarships/grants, and other resources that are available to them as caregivers.  

Closing Thoughts

It can feel intimidating to reach out or offer help to the family caregiver in your life, especially if they’re in a grieving or overwhelming situation. It’s important to know that even if your approach is imperfect, the act of reaching out will be impactful.

The California Caregiver Resource Centers are a network of eleven independent 501(c)3 not-for-profit organizations across California that were created to be a free resource for caregivers in the state of California. We would love to connect the family caregiver in your life with their local Center, where they can talk more about local programs for caregivers, answer questions, and explain how they can best support the caregiver in your life.

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