Most of us have likely heard the truism: If you need something done, ask a busy person.
But a corollary of that may be, the busiest of us, the ones who seem the most competent and together, may also be silently suffering from depression, anxiety or are overwhelmed. And caregivers can easily fall into this category.
When my husband suffered a stroke that left him paralyzed from the neck down, hospital employees warned me that my new responsibilities as his caregiver would be taxing. They told me I’d need friends and extensive support in order to avoid some of the negative health effects to which simply being a caregiver can contribute, such as mental health disorders, heart disease, and cancer.
As the weeks and months of his illness turned into years, everything wasn’t all sadness. There were many beautiful moments of closeness that we treasured. Yet, the challenges were immense, and people who checked in on me and asked how I was doing made a difference. Unfortunately, sometimes people didn’t think to ask about me. Instead, they tended to ask about my husband. How was his health? Were there any improvements? Was there anything they could do to help him?
This is natural. My husband faced severe health challenges that eventually led to his death, and I appreciated my friends’ concern. But according to caregiving experts, this is also a problem. Caregivers often struggle. Their job is exhausting, never-ending, and emotionally draining. They often don’t have time to schedule their own health checkups and so disease may go undiscovered. Sleep may be difficult due to worries or a need to care for a loved one in the middle of the night. There may be no time to exercise, and they may have few moments to connect with friends, who are a necessity for emotional health.
So what can one do to support not only obviously struggling caregivers, but also your friends who seem to be handling everything beautifully? First, realize they probably aren’t handling their challenges as well as it might appear, and second keep in mind that there are things—big and small—that you can do to help. Here are a few ideas.
1) Give Them Joy
Gifts, large or small, make many people feel appreciated. Meals, a pretty flower, or a special dessert—anything that shows you were thinking of them can help. Even the smallest gesture can give someone a lift. For some, a phone call to check in might do it. For others, a gift card for a home massage may be just the thing. Or maybe an outing, whether it’s a walk in the neighborhood or a visit to a favored restaurant. Consider what you can joyfully do, and do it.
2) Give Them a Break
Most likely, the gift that would be most appreciated is the gift of your time. Offer to hang out with a loved one, and encourage the caregiver to go out for a couple of hours to do something special for themselves. Make it a weekly event if you can. Or if you only have a little time to spare, arrange a visit and just be present to help for a short time. Sit with their loved one, so that your caregiving friend can take a short nap or walk around the block or run to the grocery store. Or maybe schedule a time to hang out and watch a favorite TV show, so that the caregiver and care receiver aren’t alone every evening. Whatever you can manage, will help. An act of friendship warms the heart of almost anyone.
3) Let Them Talk
Simply stating a problem out loud to others provides a unique comfort. It’s wonderful not to be alone with a struggle. Yet, many caregivers worry about burdening others by talking about their difficulties. If questions about your friend’s well-being only receive sunny replies, try something different. Ask them if they might be willing to listen to your difficulties for 10 minutes, and then you can listen to theirs for a similar length of time. That way it’s an exchange, which may help them open up. One caregiver scheduled a weekly venting phone call with a group of friends. She knew that every week at a particular time, support would be there for her, and she would have the equal joy of providing support for her friends. It gave her strength.
So if you can, take a moment to check in on your friends and family, including the ones who don’t seem to have many problems. You never know what’s going on beneath the surface, and your kindness may provide a needed lift to someone’s heart.
Thank you for reading, please share with a friend, and be well! —KK
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