Family Caregiver Blog

Don’t Ever Say This to a Caregiver!

By Sally Abrahms

You’re a harried and exhausted family caregiver. You want people to be supportive and comforting. But well-intentioned friends, coworkers and family can say things that make you feel worse—or plain angry.

Trust me. During the course of taking care of two parents and one mother-in-law, commuting every weekend to see at least one of them, I was told a heap of unhelpful remarks. Let’s start with, “You’re lucky you have a mother!” or “At least your father-in-law doesn’t live with you!” or maybe said differently, but with the message of, “How hard can it be, your mother is able to hire help?”

I’ve wanted to reply, “You have no clue,” or better yet, “you didn’t just say that, did you?” Whether your parents or in-laws live with you, nearby, or across the country, caregiving is hard and it’s emotional.

To have someone say something insensitive (that they obviously don’t realize is), can be a much bigger deal if you’re exhausted, stressed or have mixed feelings about your role.

My colleague Barry Jacobs, a clinical psychologist and writer, moved his mother up from Florida to be near his home in Pennsylvania. He had a conflict-ridden relationship with her. “I used to hate it when people told me that I was a hero for taking care of my mother,” he told me. “I had so many negative feelings about being her caregiver that their praise just increased my guilt about feeling ambivalently.”

For me, the “hero” comment is in the same family as “I could never do what you’re doing!” Jacobs is also irked by the phrase, “God never gives you more than you can carry.” He thinks that even if he believed that, “hearing it made me feel that my particular concerns were being trivialized.”

But his all-time favorite was, “Why don’t you take some time for yourself?” “I always wanted to respond, ‘what a great idea! I never thought of that before!’” That differs from caringly asking, “Do you have any time for yourself?”

I asked Jacobs’ wife, psychologist Julie Mayer, co-author with him of Meditations for Caregivers, what she found least helpful her caregiving stint with her mother-in-law. “People told me that I’m an angel who will be rewarded for my good deeds,” she recalls. “I know they meant well, but it felt like a huge exaggeration that left me denying it to the person who had complimented me.”

“I’d end up seeming to minimize my efforts which wasn’t accurate either,” she went on to complain. “I also felt misunderstood because although I wanted to do the caregiving, I felt ambivalent and resentful at times. I was not an angel. And I had no idea about what reward I was supposed to receive! The ‘angel’ comment felt oddly dismissive although I’m certain that it came from a place of caring.”

What to Say Instead

In her new book Option B, Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg writes that when her husband died suddenly at a young age, it helped far more when someone told her they were in it [the sad journey] with her or that “we are going to get through this together” rather than “You will get through this.”

Rather than “let me know if there’s anything I can do,” be specific. How about, “do you want me to come visit your mother and keep you company?” or
“I’d like to drop off a meal this week, what night is best for you?” You could also say, “I’m going to the grocery store today. What I can pick up for you?”

Here are other phrases that experts suggest :

  • “What you are doing is so hard.”
  • “How is your mother-in-law [or father] doing?”
  • “How are you doing?” Asking open-ended questions allows a caregiver to discuss her feelings, or not to, if they don’t want to. It also opens the door for future conversation.

Here’s my advice: Unless you are asked, don’t give any. Instead, give a gift certificate for a massage or facial and offer to stay with their parent while they do. If you are on the receiving end, chalk it up to caring that misfired. Rather than stew, remember what they said and save it for a dumb and dumber contest! You’ll probably win.