How to Help an Overwhelmed Caregiver

“Is there anything I can do?” is not a helpful question for overwhelmed caregivers. They probably want to answer with something like the following:

Can you make my husband walk again so he can walk my daughter down the aisle? Can you make my wife better so we can go on our vacation? Can you move in so I can go back to work?

Instead of seeing the asker as the helping person he or she wants to be, that question can lead caregivers to feel even more overwhelmed. When their loved one is declining, caregivers hear this question so often they tend to say no without thinking.

Instead of a generic inquiry, offer specific help:

“What don’t you want on your hamburger?”

“When I bring over some flowers, do you want them planted below your mailbox or in the flower box?”

“What foods do I need to avoid when I make you dinner tomorrow?”

“I’m coming over Tuesday while you play golf. What time shall I arrive so you won’t be rushed?”

You may think caregivers will believe you’re being too pushy with such direct questions before you’ve established a helping relationship. Instead, think of it as you providing them a simple question to answer (a rarity when dealing with difficult medical and financial problems). The uniqueness of your question with its embedded offer of support will capture their attention and make them feel cared for.

Caregivers can still say no if you’ve chosen the wrong time or “gift.” Be gracious accepting their no, listening carefully for the meaning behind their words. Use the details of their “no” to craft a better offer later. For example, if the caregiver didn’t want you to come into their house, next time offer to take them out to dinner, drop off the hamburger or do a yard task.

Many caregivers are givers and never accept help. The trick is to figure out what they actually need and offer it. If you offer help repeatedly, even the most hesitant caregiver will probably conclude you really do want to help.

Your offers of help can be for the caregiver or their loved one. Areas where help is needed can include the following:

  • Taking a loved one to a doctor’s appointment
  • Providing a self-care gift (massage, manicure, new book)
  • Staying with the loved one during hard times of day (for example, just before dinner)
  • Doing chores that occur less frequently (taxes, trimming bushes, car maintenance) and chores that you know the caregiver doesn’t enjoy

Decide what and when you can offer your help—and be there. We all know people who constantly offer help but don’t follow through or who offer to listen but only talk about themselves. Arrive when you say you will and focus only on the caregiver.

For caregivers who need more help, they can apply for a grant to pay for respite care at home through the Family Caregiver Program at (864) 242-9733.

Eunice Lehmacher, a licensed independent social worker, is the bereavement coordinator at Prisma Health Hospice of the Foothills in Seneca. 

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