Chances are you know someone who is caring for someone with cancer, an aging parent with dementia or a child with special needs. While you may want to empathize with them, it’s impossible to truly put yourself in their shoes, and it’s human to sometimes say the wrong thing.
To help us all become better support people for those caregivers, we talked with UNC Health psychologist Justin Yopp, PhD, and a few caregivers participating in a support group. We’re sharing some of the real-life unhelpful comments they’ve received over time, and what to say and do instead.
1. “Whatever you need me to do, just call me.”
Don’t say this. While it may sound helpful, because you are offering to do just about anything, it puts the burden on the caregiver to come up with ideas. This often results in the caregiver not making a request at all. “Blanket offers are well-intended,” says Dr. Yopp, “but they are not particularly helpful.”
Think of concrete ways you are willing to help and suggest those instead. For example, you can offer to set up a carpool for their kids to and from after-school activities, make dinner on a specific night, bring over freezer meals that they can eat anytime, go on a grocery run or do their laundry. When you make the offer, be specific, Dr. Yopp says: “Getting dinner on the table must be difficult. We’re going to send you dinner on Wednesday night.”
2. “Don’t forget about self-care!”
Self-care is critically important for caregivers, so you might be tempted to encourage a caregiver to take some time for themselves. But being pushed to practice self-care can feel overwhelming, especially for someone juggling caregiving with work, children or other obligations. As one caregiver says, “They say you need to get some rest, take some time … but you’re holding a household together, so how do you do that?”
Instead of urging self-care, find a specific way to help caregivers take a moment away. You could offer to watch the kids while they take a nap, sit with the person they’re caring for while they go for a walk, see a movie or read a book. “The things you used to love to do, you can’t do because you are taking care of someone,” says one caregiver. “You try to be strong … but you lose a part of yourself.”
It is best when the caregiver’s time away is relaxing and enjoyable, not a chore. As a caregiver says, “When I get a moment, get an hour, it makes me feel better.” But don’t nag the caregiver if they choose to spend the time cleaning or running errands instead of doing something fun; the point is to ease their load, not judge them.
3. “Why did they get cancer? Have you tried [fill in the blank]?”
People often quiz caregivers, looking for answers that they may not know, on subjects that can cause considerable pain. It can feel like the question is implying the loved one did something to deserve their illness, or that the asker is questioning the family’s health choices. “Sometimes, people don’t think before they speak,” says one caregiver. “They have good intentions but they don’t think.”
People might suggest treatments or folk remedies when the caregiver is already awash in medical information and working with experts. It’s normal for a caregiver to wonder if they are doing enough, if they have the best plan, so these kinds of recommendations are not supportive. Unless you are a trained medical professional, resist giving your opinion on diagnoses, treatment plans and research studies.
Take a Thoughtful Approach with the Caregiver in Your Life
If you’re a family member or friend of a caregiver, it’s difficult to understand what they’re going through on an hour-by-hour or day-by-day basis. It’s OK to admit that. You can say, “I have no idea what you’re going through right now, but I’m here to listen.”
Family members and friends can be a great support, Dr. Yopp says, but a support group might be helpful in a different way. “There is no substitute for being with other people who are in your boat and who can understand and identify with what you’re going through.”
If you’re close to a caregiver, you can ask them if they’ve considered joining a support group. Their healthcare provider will be able to connect them to a group, in person or online.
As one caregiver says: “Sometimes it’s best to talk to strangers. Strangers don’t judge, they listen,” she says.
Learn more about mental health care at UNC Health and how to get help for you or a loved one.