“My nana had Alzheimer’s. When you care for a loved one whose health is declining before your eyes, it can be painful. Growing up, Nana was my best friend: we’d hang out together every summer and could talk about anything. When her mind started to go and she’d forget things like how to write her son’s name or where she was or what she did an hour ago, it broke my heart.”
There are 53 million Americans serving as unpaid caregivers in 2020, an increase of 9.5 million in the past 5 years, and 23% of those say caregiving has made their own health worse (Source: National Alliance for Caregiving). As the demand for caregiving rises with an aging population, many caregivers are feeling the stress, whether it’s financial or just having so much to do or the heavy emotional toll it can take to care for a loved one with an illness or other health issues.
The reasons for being a caregiver and the experiences of each person vary from story to story, but there are things we can do to support the caregivers in our lives, whatever their story is.
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Many people caring for family members are happy to be able to support and comfort a loved one facing a terminal illness or other prolonged difficulty, but it is far from easy. Many caregivers are a part of what is called The Sandwich Generation, caring for their older parents while also still having the responsibility of their own children, which can be financially challenging, logistically tough and which leaves little time for them to care for themselves.
Even if a caregiver doesn’t have kids of their own to be responsible for, watching as a loved one succumbs to illness is devastating and can come with starkly mixed emotions, piling stress upon stress.
“The blow of my mom’s and dad’s terminal illnesses, plus the enormous weight of caring for elder parents living five hours away while working full time and raising two kids is what made my experience significant, but it was the response of friends and family that made it meaningful.” –Mo S.
“I once had a friend tell me, when I threw out my back and couldn’t drive or run kids anywhere, to ‘use your village.’ You know, the ‘it takes a village’ village. And when my mom had to move from her senior living facility to hospice care, one friend came and helped me pack up her kitchen; another called a donation truck and met it herself to clear out my mom’s apartment, freeing me up to sit with my mom in hospice.” –Mo S.
- Be their village. Take something off their plate by driving their kids to soccer practice, picking up prescriptions, taking their loved one to the doctor’s appointment. Whether it affords them time for themselves or time to focus on just one thing, it’s time they need and will appreciate.
“One friend started a meal train for me, where I got several nights a week off of cooking. Another friend texted me to ‘Please put a cooler on your porch next week. We will be supplying dinner every night. XO.’” –Mo S.
- Caregivers spend so much time on their loved one’s needs they can begin to neglect themselves. Simply making dinner becomes a chore. Meal trains, meal donations or a restaurant gift card are invaluable. It’s not only a practical and healthy way to help, it’s a concrete way to show you care.
- Similarly, caregivers often take little time for their own enjoyment. Asking them out for a bite, inviting them for a spa treatment or just having a chat at their front door for a while can give them the much-needed break they deserve but may not ask for.
“The simplest acts, a handwritten note or a quick call, meant so much and reminded me that I was still surviving, and I wasn’t surviving on my own. There were those around me who cared for me and were willing to be there for me time and time again.” –Skyler H.
- In the world of a caregiver, a quick text, a card, an email, a sticky note on the front door, any kind of “Hey, I’m thinking of you and am sending you hugs” can go such a long way in providing a little moment of happy.
Helpful Tip: The caregiving journey can be an extended one. Try to show up for the caregiver throughout it.
“Looking back, many people gave me supportive words about how great Nana was and how sad it was that she was losing her mind, but I already knew that. It might’ve been more helpful if people said things like, ‘This sucks. I’m here for you.’ It would’ve been nice to hear those words to not feel alone, to have people acknowledge the crappiness of the situation rather than trying to be so bubbly and positive. (That’s okay, too, but being real and authentic about that reality, however crappy, means more.)” –Emily O.
- It’s hard work being a caretaker. It can be both emotionally and physically draining, and that doesn’t need to be ignored. Even if you don’t totally understand what they’re going through, you can commiserate and say “I know this is hard, and I’m sorry.”
“The best and most helpful conversations that I had during this time were with a couple of friends who also had parents going through serious elder-care experiences at the same time. We could vent, share tips and, yes, even laugh. Then the next time I’d see my mom I was more likely to have extra reserves of patience. The shared experience was important.” –Matt G.
- If you do understand the caregiving experience, others may benefit from your perspective. Don’t dole out unsolicited advice, but be open to sharing stories of your journey that may resonate with other caregivers to alleviate the common feeling of being alone in this challenging experience.
“During those times just hanging out with her in her hospice room, we had a lot of wonderful conversations about our childhoods, her grandchildren, often while my daughter and I would be sorting her mail or going through her old letters from the bottom of her desk drawers to read them to her.” –Matt G.
- Many caregivers will find comfort in cherished memories of life with their loved one before he or she became ill. So it’s OK to ask questions about their loved one. Not everyone will be comfortable talking about them—and they’ll let you know—but many want to share their stories and perhaps remember better days.