Caregivers often find that many of their superficial friends drift away over time because the caregiver is too busy to have fun. These friends are not bad people. They simply don't know what to do to help the caregiver and they find it easier to share their time with people whose lives are less complicated.
Are you this kind of friend?
If you are just a casual friend to the caregiver, perhaps it's best to remain that way. Still, some of you really care about your caregiving friend and want to help, but you don't know how.
The following tips may give your some insight into what you can do to help your friend as he or she takes care of their elderly loved one. (Remember to take this as general advice since every caregiver and every care situation is unique.)
- Listen attentively. Really listen to your caregiving friend. Caregivers are rarely expecting you to solve their problems, but they sometimes need to vent their frustration and sorrow. By occasionally responding during the conversation, with sounds or short comments that assure the caregiver that you are engaged in the story, you can show that you really do care. Pretending to listen rarely fools anyone. If you want to be a true friend, listen attentively.
- Don't tell horror stories. A person who has just gone through the agony of placing a loved one in a care facility doesn't need to hear about a substandard nursing home in another community where something terrible reportedly occurred. You may feel that you are just conversing about the topic, but these stories will only increase the caregiver's feelings of guilt and worry. Unless what you have to say is truly useful in preventing something bad from happening, avoid negative chatter.
- Don't judge. Don't second guess the caregiver's decisions. Whether that means saving your nursing home horror stories for someone who won't be emotionally affected by them, or refraining from saying that the caregiver is crazy for quitting a paying job to care for a loved one, she or he doesn't need negative judgment. You are not in their shoes.
- Say, "What can I do to help?" A caregiver who is coping with a tragic end-of-life situation is as vulnerable as someone who has lost a loved one to death. Sometimes the caregiver is essentially attending a living death. You, the friend, can't be expected to know what kind of help is needed, but by asking what is needed you sound more sincere than you would by offering the generic comment of "let me know if I can do something."
- Offer the gift of your time. Help research the care receiver's diseases. Offer to sit with the care receiver while your friend has some alone time. Offer to run some errands. Offer to cook a meal. Just don't offer what you can't deliver.
- Give your friend space. Sometimes a caregiver wants nothing more than to be left alone. Don't imply that because the caregiver isn't actively rushing around that he or she has nothing to do. Be alert for true isolation, as there are deadly consequences of loneliness, but take into account your friend's normal personality. A normally gregarious person may need some prodding to go out, but many people need time alone to regroup before they can enjoy anything social.
- Bring food. This can be a full meal, a main dish or a dessert. Something that can be frozen is often best. Let your friend know that this gift is intended for whenever it would best suit his or her schedule. That way, you are not overriding plans they may already have made.
- Offer to take your friend out. First, though, if the person is providing care in the home without backup, assure the caregiver that you have someone trustworthy – perhaps someone from your group of friends – who can sit with the person who needs care. Caregivers can't relax when they are worried about their loved one's welfare.
- Don't make more work. Avoid doing anything in the name of caring that makes more work for the caregiver, such as saying that you are gathering up the gang and you'll all be over to visit. No matter how often you repeat that the caregiver should not go to any trouble, the caregiver will feel pressured to prepare for company. This is not meant to discourage a good friend from visiting. Just ask when a good time can be arranged. There are exceptions to group visits. If this particular caregiver would love a whole group to stop over, be clear that you are handling all preparations.
- Don't exclude your friend because she often has to decline invitations. Don't hound the caregiver with invitations that you know can't be accepted, but do make sure that your friend is still kept in the loop. Offer invitations – ideally with practical help, when needed – that can conceivably be accepted. At the same time, don't lay guilt on your friend for declining. Sometimes caregivers are simply too fatigued to want to do anything at all. That does not mean that they don't want to be remembered.
As with nearly everything else that has to do with caregiving, there is no guarantee that you, as a friend, will always do the right thing. Caregivers are unique, and care situations can change dramatically at any moment.
Don't wallow in guilt if you've neglected your caregiving friend or done something "wrong." The unfortunate reality is that, oftentimes, when caregiving starts, friends scatter. Just keep trying to show your friendship in every practical way that you can. Remember, you could eventually be in the caregiver's shoes (if you haven't already traveled that road). Your caregiving friend could, one day, become your most valued supporter.