I have read that 4 out of 10 of us have a family member who has some form of dementia. There are other medical conditions, like strokes and cancer, which leave a patient needing a caregiver as well. Family members assume the care for over 80% of these patients, many of them in their 70s and 80s. When people step into the role of “caregiver,” every aspect of their daily life is impacted. Caring for a loved one with Alzheimer’s or another major medical condition can be overwhelming, Caregivers face tests of their stamina, their problem-solving, and their resiliency as patients lose one ability after another. Without a strong support system to offer relief and assistance, caregivers wear out and their health begins to decline also. One of the best things you can do for the caregivers you know is to really BE THERE for them, not just give lip service about being there. It’s easy to say, “Let me know if there’s anything I can do.” It’s quite another thing to step up and actively help. So you ask, “How can I actively ‘be there’?” Here are a few suggestions I have gleaned from some caregivers with whom I am acquainted. ♥ Remember to visit and phone the caregiver often. Call before you visit to be sure it is a good time to stop by. Many caregivers report that family members and friends stop visiting because they feel inadequate to deal with illness. Think about this—the caregiver deals with the patient ALL the time and probably feels no more adequate to deal with the illness than you do. The caregiver had to learn about the disease from medical literature and internet sites like the Alzheimer's Association or the Helpguide.org websites. If you care about the caregiver’s well-being, you can learn about the disease and help caregivers by being actively involved. Educate yourself about community resources available to help the caregiver; however, reserve this information until the caregiver asks for your advice.
♥ I learned another reason people stop visiting is they fear being stricken with the disease themselves. None of us knows the future, but we can deal with the present in an honorable way and leave the future to God’s care. Put yourself in the situation of the caregiver and be supportive, even if you do have to summon extra courage. At least, you can call and send short e-mails or notes of encouragement. A simple thing like calling to ask the caregiver “How are you doing?” can be encouraging. Most people focus on the patient and forget about the caregiver’s well-being. ♥ Believe caregivers when they tell you about symptoms or behaviors they observe. After all, they live with the patient every day and they see the changes as they happen. It is common for those around the patient for short times not to notice changes unless they are pronounced. ♥ Refrain from giving advice unless you’ve been in the same situation or the caregiver asks for your advice. Spouting off unsolicited advice can cause a caregiver feel more inadequate in handling things when they are doing the best they can. Caregivers deal with an overwhelming task and need encouragement from the people around them. ♥ Just LISTEN! Let caregivers talk about their frustrations in dealing with the patient and the disease. Sometimes they just need to talk with someone who is functioning well cognitively, especially those who deal with dementia patients. Sometimes people need to talk through problems to sort out options. Sometimes people need to share their feelings and to be reassured they are handling things as well. Refrain from negative comments and offer encouragement, like “You are handling these challenges well.” or ask “How can I best help you?” ♥ Instead of saying “Let me know if there’s anything I can do,” ask to do a specific task. Here are some examples: “May I bring dinner over for you?” (in disposable containers) “May I do a load of laundry while I’m here?” “May I sit with the patient a couple of hours so you can shop or take care of business matters?” “May I run the vacuum for you?” "May I mow the yard?” “May I shovel the snow from the driveway?” “May I wash the car?” Someone else can do many routine tasks to relieve a caregiver. ♥ Encourage caregivers to celebrate the good things in their lives—like friendship. Invite them out for coffee or lunch from time to time. Help arrange for someone else to sit with the patient for this outing. (If the patient is male, ask a male relative or friend to sit with the patient. If the patient is female, ask a female relative or friend.) A little time of respite refreshes the caregiver. ♥ Remember that many behaviors seen in Alzheimer’s patients are beyond their control and beyond the control of the caregiver. Caregivers deal with changing behaviors and many needs as the diseases progress. Be supportive of caregivers and remind them that they are handling the changes as well as anyone can. Ask how you may help rather than giving advice. ♥ Encourage caregivers to give themselves credit when they say they should do more. They are doing the best they can and should not feel guilty because they can't do more. Remind them they are there to help their loved one and that you admire them for that. Remember, you could find yourself in the caregiver role without much notice. I encourage you to respond to caregivers the way you would want people to respond to you. As the slogan of yesteryear suggested: “Reach out, reach out and touch someone.” Caregivers will appreciate your interest.