Considerations When Supporting a Caregiver

Caring for someone with cancer is a very difficult job, and many people who do it are unpaid. Sometimes friends and family want to support caregivers, but they don’t know what to do. Here are six things to consider if you are helping a loved one through their caregiving journey.

1. “How is the patient?”

This sounds counter-intuitive, but the caregiver probably hears the question too many times. If the caregiver voluntarily tells you about the patient’s condition, then listen; but try not to ask the caregiver. Instead of asking about the patient, ask about the caregiver. People don’t tend to ask after the caregiver. So instead, ask “How are you?” or “How are you coping?” and mean it. Then, really listen to the response.

Friend holding hands of caregiver in support

2. “You will be rewarded in future.”

People may be well-meaning, but variations on statements like “You will be rewarded in future” are not helpful. It implies that caregivers should not be rewarded in the present moment. Instead, think about how you can reward the caregiver now, maybe with a small gift. Or even saying something like “Thank you for looking after him. I know that it is difficult and I really appreciate what you are doing.” If it is heartfelt and sincere, it will make the caregiver feel appreciated.

3. “You look very tired.”

Statements like, “You look very tired/sick” are also not helpful. The caregiver knows that they are tired and look a mess. They don’t need it to be pointed out. If you want to help, think about what the caregiver needs to have a break. It could mean offering to babysit the children, so that the caregiver can have an afternoon off to go shopping or just have a nap.

4. “I don’t know how you do it.”

Statements such as “I don’t know how you do it,” or “I could never do what you’re doing” are not helpful. Caregivers don’t know how they do it either. They may not have had a choice about being a caregiver, and they are just doing their best, trying to get through each day. So, imagine what it would be like to be a caregiver, and think about ways that you can help. You can say something acknowledging that caregiving is difficult and offer some help. For instance, “I know that caregiving is very challenging. Would it help if I come over and sit with your mother so that you can go out?”

Hands holding one another on wooden table

5. “Call me if you need anything.”

Don’t say something vague like, “Call me if you need anything/something” or “Let me know if I can help.” Caregivers are already so overwhelmed with what feels like a million things to do. Asking them to tell you what they need help with is like adding another thing on their ‘to do’ list. Instead, offer help that is concrete and specific, and follow through with it, such as:

  • ‘Can I pick the kids up from school?’
  • ‘Can I take the patient to the hospital/doctor’s appointment?’
  • ‘Can I help you do the laundry/dishes/vacuuming/cooking?’
  • ‘What do you need from the supermarket?’

Or just bring some groceries over. Ready-to-eat meals or frozen meals that are easy to heat up would be something that caregivers can readily make use of.

6. Be careful not to give the caregiver more work.

Sometimes, people with good intentions don’t realize that what they are doing is causing more work for the caregiver. For example, a former caregiver said, ‘I got annoyed when people brought over flowers and pot plants. What am I going to do with a big bouquet of flowers? Flowers don’t clean the house, they don’t cook, they don’t do the laundry. I end up having to water it, and change the water, and when the flowers wilt, I’m the one who has to clean it up. It’s just more work for me.’

That former caregiver said that even giving cheap fruits or some kind of food would be better than expensive flowers that wilt after two weeks. If you want to bring a gift, ask the caregiver what would be best.

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