Question: “My dad (who's retired) is the primary caregiver. How can I help alleviate his stress (other than stepping in for him) and ensure that he can ‘keep it all together’ when I see how tough it is to take care of my mother?” --Member of the Dementia Sherpa tribe
Supporting your caregiving parents seems like it’d be relatively easy. Just like it seems obvious that asking is a great way to find out how we can help someone. But the trick is to navigate carefully. You can start by asking, “HOW can I help?” rather than, “Do you need any help?”
Most care partners will answer ‘no’ to the latter question, either because they’ve got the squirrely idea they should be able to do it all themselves, or because “no” is the polite thing to say.
Before you ask, come up with some concrete ways you can help. Taking this approach helps both of you because it doesn’t put the primary care partner on the spot of needing to come up with ideas for you, and because you know you’ll be able to say ‘yes’ to whatever they choose.
Here are some ideas for supporting your caregiving parent:
- Come over to do laundry once a week.
- Make and package meals that can go in the freezer and be used as needed.
- Clean the house every other week.
- Stay with your person while the primary care partner goes to a support group.
- Enlist another family member to stay with your person while you take the primary care partner to lunch.
- Do the research on day programs and/or in-home care in your area. Offer those options.
- Cut a check. You don’t have to physically be the one supporting your caregiving parent; professionals are ready to help in all of these areas.
- Supporting your caregiving parent can be as easy as letting him know you see him. We all want to be acknowledged, to be seen, to be heard.
As a general rule, it works best to express your concerns in a loving way and remember to use THINK as a guideline for what you’ll say: Is it Thoughtful? Honest? Intelligent? Necessary? Kind?
Even if you’ve historically enjoyed a close relationship and supporting your caregiving parent feels like a no-brainer to you, he can still feel defensive and go on the attack if you’re not careful with your words. Remember, stressed-out, sleep-deprived people aren’t at their best. Even with the people they love most.
You could say, “Dad, I just wanted to let you know I think you’re doing a great job taking care of Mom and making sure she’s got a good quality of life. I really appreciate all you do, and I know it’s a lot. I see how it could feel stressful sometimes. I’d like to help by coming over this Saturday at 9 am. That way I can spend time with Mom and you can have some time to go to [a support group/the movies/grocery shopping/run errands/stare into space/recharge your batteries]. How does that sound?”
Skip the Conversation
Another way of supporting your caregiving parent it is to not have a conversation at all. Though exhausted and maybe overwhelmed, parents usually continue acting like parents–wanting to shield their child from the reality of the situation.
Intellectually, they know you’re all grown up. They’re super proud of you and brag about you to anyone who makes eye contact. But emotionally, they look at you and see their kindergartner. They’ll say they don’t need help when asked but gratefully accept when help just magically appears.
In this case, you’d simply say, “I’d like to come over Saturday morning about 9 to spend some one-on-one time with Mom. I love you, too, of course, but I haven’t hung out with just Mom in a while now.”
Some primary care partners keep a very tight rein because they’re in fear of bringing others–even their own kids–into the mix. They’re afraid they’re doing it wrong, or will be criticized, or it will become obvious just how overwhelmed they are.
When that’s the situation, you’ll need to help the primary care partner build up a tolerance to having others involved. A great way to do this is to take on (or hire someone else to take on) tasks that don’t directly involve your parent with dementia and threaten your other parent’s autonomy and sense of control.
For example, you can say, “I’d like to do something nice for you this week. Would you rather I do your grocery shopping, or run your errands?” (This is called offering a contained choice–notice “no thanks” isn’t a choice–and also works well with people living with dementia.)
No matter what the particulars of your situation, know that the best place to start supporting your caregiving parent is by making sure he knows you’re coming from a place of love rather than judgment.
Bring the Good Stuff (respect, kindness, love, empathy, and compassion) and over time, you can start taking more off your parent’s plate as they begin seeing what a difference your help and support makes.