When they come from people who don't know what someone else is going through, even well-intentioned comments and questions can be frustrating and hurtful.
Cindy Laverty, caregiver coach, radio talk show host, and author of, "Caregiving: Eldercare Made Clear and Simple," offers examples of phrases that can leave caregivers thinking, "Did she really just say that?"
- "Why are you having such a hard time being a caregiver?" Usually voiced by someone who has never been a caregiver for an elderly loved one, this question can be very difficult for a caregiver to hear. As Laverty points out, it effectively takes their role of providing care for a loved one, and diminishes it.
- "Gosh…we haven't seen you in such a long time. Why don't you get out more?" Though it probably comes from a place of love, Laverty points out that this can be an unproductive way to express concern for a friend or family member who is a caregiver. "The truth is that most caregivers do need to get out more, but this is an insensitive way of saying it," she says.
- "You look really tired. Are you making sure to take care of yourself?" Caregivers generally have a good reason for looking tired and haggard—because they are. "The biggest issue for caregivers is that they tend to sacrifice personal care—it's the first thing that goes," Laverty says. Caregivers look tired because they are not getting enough sleep, they spend their nights worrying and making sure their loved one doesn't wander. But, that doesn't mean that they appreciate having that fact pointed out to them.
- "Caregiving seems like a burden. You shouldn't have to sacrifice your life for your mother's." Caregiving is hard. That's why so many people, both caregivers and non-caregivers alike, refer to it as a ‘burden.' But, according to Laverty, when a friend or family member likens caregiving to a burden, what they're really telling the caregiver is that they aren't handling the situation properly and that this isn't what they should be doing with their life. "Caregivers get into their role because they started out as loving, caring people trying to do the right thing," she says.
- "You need to get a ‘real' life." As the old saying goes, ‘you're preaching to the choir.' "Every caregiver understands that they need to get a life, have a plan, start making time for themselves," Laverty says. But, telling a caregiver to ‘get a life' is like telling them that what they're doing now (caring for a loved one) doesn't matter.
- "Why don't you just put you mother in a nursing home? It would be better for everyone." Laverty says that comments like this can make a caregiver feel like they're not doing a good job taking care of their loved one. The reality is, a nursing home might not be financially feasible, or a caregiver may be trying to keep their loved one at home for as long as possible. Outsiders think they're offering good advice, when they might really just (unintentionally) be making a caregiver feel guilty.
- "Why do you visit your dad so much? He doesn't even know you." If a caregiver is taking care of someone who has Alzheimer's or another form of dementia and lives in a nursing home, people may ask why they bother to visit someone who doesn't even remember who they are. "People need human contact and love, or they will just shrivel up and die," Laverty says, "Caregivers shouldn't feel stupid for going to visit someone who doesn't recognize them outwardly. As long as they know who their loved one is, that's all that should matter."
- "Don't feel guilty about…" When you're a caregiver, "guilt just comes with the territory," according to Laverty. Caregivers want to fix everything, to solve every problem, to ease every hurt, when the reality is that no one can do it all. When people tell a caregiver not to feel guilty about something, it can make things worse by bringing that guilt to the forefront of their mind.
- "Let's not talk about that. Let's talk about something happy and fun." When it comes to your average small talk scenario, caregivers generally don't have a lot of "fun" things to contribute. Laverty says that people need to understand that people taking care of an elderly loved one need to talk about what's going on. Friends and family members of caregivers should take the time to listen to what a caregiver has to say, no matter how ‘unpleasant,' or ‘unhappy' it is.
- "You must be so relieved that it's over." When their elderly loved one dies a caregiver is likely to be facing a bunch of mixed up emotions. Relief may be one of those feelings, but Laverty feels that it's probably not productive to point this out to a person who has just lost a parent, spouse, or sibling. "If you diminish the event, you diminish the life and effort of the caregiver," she says.
- "When are you going to get over it (a senior's death) and move on?" Grief is an individual process. For some people, processing the death of a loved one will take some time. This is particularly true of caregivers, who've poured a significant amount of time and energy into taking care of the person who has just passed.
Tips for responding to callous comments
Conventional conversational courtesies tend to fly out the window when intense situations (like caregiving) and strong emotions collide.
Caregivers, according to Laverty, tend to have a heightened sensitivity. "Everything seems to affect you more than when you're a normal person going to work and dealing with family, because you're so on edge and trying to do a million things in a day," she says.
It's easy for stressed-out caregiver to take a well-intentioned comment or question the wrong way and snap at whoever said it. Laverty has a few general suggestions for caregivers:
- Respond calmly to whatever is said.
- If you're hurt by someone's question or comment, you can say "I know that you really care about me, but what you just said didn't feel good, here's why…"
- Use hurtful comments as a way to ask for help. For example, you could say: "I'd love to figure out how to, ‘get a life.' As my friend, would you be willing to sit down and brainstorm ways to help me balance being a caregiver and having a ‘real' life?"
Conversely, friends and family members bear some responsibility for expressing their concern in appropriate ways. Laverty's advice: "Think before you say something stupid."
Interactions between caregivers and their family and friends have the potential to be helpful and fulfilling for both parties. When in doubt, following the Golden Rule and treating someone how you would like to be treated always works best. As Laverty says, "We get these packages that say, ‘Handle with care.' Why don't we make efforts to apply that to each other?"
For tips on dealing with specific remarks, see: "How to Respond to Insensitive Comments."