The life of a caregiver can be stressful and difficult. Whether someone is taking care of a loved one who is chronically ill or an elderly family member, caregivers have an incredibly long list of to-do items that never ease up. As a caregiver myself, when talking to my friends or people who are not in this same situation, there is something that I have become tired of hearing — “be strong.”
Please don’t tell someone you know who is taking care of another to “be strong.” Becoming a caregiver has required me to be the strongest I have ever needed to be. It is me, by my loved ones side during the emergencies and the late nights; the pain and the panic; surgeries and stitches; pill boxes and appointments. Sure, strength can be quantified. A person can tell you how much they can hold and lift. Pound for pound there are much stronger people than me who exist. I know this for sure. But the strength caregivers endure is not quantifiable.
Often, becoming a caregiver requires a shift in family roles. Going from child to adult can be swift and shocking, like jumping into frozen waters. The strength it takes to take on that role, to look a loved one in the eye and tell them everything is going to be fine, and that they will be OK and taken care of is immeasurable — why?
Because as a caregiver, sometimes we don’t know if it’s true. To be clear, this is not meant to sound like one long complaint. I just want to make sure it is understood, that when you tell a caregiver to be strong, you wipe away every moment in their journey when they have been. Every moment when they kept a smile on their face through bad news, only to come apart alone in the bathroom. Every moment when they slept poorly at a hospital bedside. Every moment when they argued with doctors over the care their loved ones deserved, but weren’t receiving. Telling someone to be something that is already part of their core identity can be disheartening; as if the dedication of their caregiving has meant nothing.
So what should you say?
How do you respond to a friend or family member who is a caregiver and is talking to you about their struggles?
The first thing to do is validate their feelings. Recognize their experience and be there. Listen. Sometimes, that’s all a person needs.
Does this caregiver have small children?
If so, instead of offering words, offer to babysit for a couple of hours so your friend can grab some coffee. If that sounds too overwhelming, bring the coffee to them. Sit with them for a bit and share in the chaos that is their life. Come without judgement. Bring baked goods.
Believe me, we get it! Send them a Starbucks gift card. Venmo money to treat them to lunch. And if all of this is beyond your means, just send a check-in text. Communicate that they are not alone, be genuine and it will be greatly appreciated.
No matter what, stop telling caregivers what you think they should be, and remind them instead, of what they already are: strong.