Have you ever said the wrong thing? Of course you have. You're human. And when it comes to speaking to caregivers, conversations can be especially fraught.
Statistics Canada tells us more than eight million Canadians provide care to a chronically ill or disabled loved one. That's a lot of people that are going through caregiving journeys, and if you are not one of them, you may find yourself putting your foot in your mouth unknowingly.
If you know someone who is taking care of a loved one, here are six things you should avoid saying:
1. "Why are you having such a hard time being a caregiver?" There are enough questions in your friend's life without adding this one. Do you really want your friend to dig deep and look at what is making him fall short? Your friend is likely already berating himself on daily basis. Don't pile on.
2. "Gosh … we haven't seen you in such a long time. Why don't you get out more?" Get ready for this one to be answered with a blank stare. Between all of your friend's caregiving responsibilities, getting together for fun drinks is low on the list. Not because she doesn't want to do it, but because she is completely tapped out. Don't add guilt to an already guilt-riddled existence.
3. "Caregiving seems like a burden. You shouldn't sacrifice your life for your mother's." Oof. Caregiving can be described as a burden, but it also has its rewards. And most caregivers know that they should not sacrifice their life for their mother's, but few really see it as a dramatic sacrifice.
4. "Why don't you just put your mother in a nursing home? It seems like it would be better for everyone." This one bothered me the most during my caregiving time. Caregiving is a journey, but the people going through it cannot be rushed and need to come to their own conclusions in their own time. Full-time care might be a great option in your eyes, but his family may not be in a financial or emotional position to explore that option yet. Be with your friend wherever he is in the caregiving journey.
5. "Why do you visit your dad so much? He doesn't even seem to know you." There are more benefits to visiting a loved one than recognition. And when a close family member no longer recognizes someone, that can cause a specific kind of grieving and shame that is hard to talk about. Do not press on the bruise.
6. "You must be so relieved it's over." Don't say this. And if you have said it to someone, call her and apologize.
And here are five things a caregiver would love to hear you say:
1. "I don't really know what to say right now, but I'm here if you need me." Just being with someone in their sadness and confusion can mean a lot.
2. "I am sorry that you have to go through this. It sucks!" Sometimes, the simple act of acknowledging that what your friend or loved one is going through is hard can be helpful.
3. "I'll pick up the kids this afternoon so you can take a nap." "I'm on my way to the grocery store. What can I grab you?" Offer to take one thing off of a caregiver's plate. It can mean the world to her to have five minutes to herself or to not have to pop out to grab bread or milk.
4. "I've been thinking about you. Would you have time for a visit this week? You name the time and place." If you can meet your friend on her terms it can help alleviate some of the loneliness of caregiving.
5. "You are taking great care of your dad." Any encouragement you can offer will be a huge boost. Caregiving can be a thankless job. Acknowledge your friend's hard work.
If you do say the wrong thing or ask a wrong question or realize that you have erred, feel free to acknowledge your mistake and ask for forgiveness. When we allow ourselves to be vulnerable with our friends and loved ones, it gives them permission to be vulnerable, too. We are all just doing our best, whether we are caregivers or friends of caregivers. If you feel the need to say something, but don't know what to say, try saying nothing. Sometimes just your presence is the most powerful message.
Renée Henriques is a registered nurse and the owner and managing director of ComForcare Home Care Toronto, providing personal support services to seniors. Her passion for seniors and their families stems from her past work as a neurosurgical nurse, and her experience going through a lengthy caregiving journey with her own family members.