Caring for the Caregiver: How to Help Support a Friend Who is a Caregiver

Navigating the challenging role of a caregiver can be emotionally and physically exhausting. For many, it’s a labor of love, but the responsibilities can sometimes be overwhelming. As a friend, you play a vital role in providing much-needed support and relief to someone who devotes their time and energy to caring for their loved one(s). 

Your friend may be facing various challenges, such as caring for a spouse recovering from surgery, coping with the aftermath of a fall or accident, or managing a loved one’s worsening condition like cancer or dementia. It’s a difficult season of life for both the caregiver and their loved ones.

Many caregivers find themselves unprepared and unaware of the full extent of caregiving responsibilities. They might initially underestimate the challenges, assuming it will be easy, only to encounter unexpected difficulties. As they navigate these complexities, they may feel overwhelmed and frustrated, especially if they’re accustomed to managing life’s demands independently. 

Caregiving of any level can be emotionally and physically difficult for them. Their daily dread and anxiety is real. Many go into a “flight or fight” response when they become to be overwhelmed. When their loved one has a serious illness or care is prolonged, it can impair their cognitive functions and emotional regulation. It’s as if their rational thinking is inaccessible, and they struggle to manage their emotions. This might manifest as outbursts of anger or withdrawing inward.

Remaining in this state for an extended period can lead to exhaustion and a state of hypervigilance, where they might feel frozen or physically drained, even experiencing fatigue and chronic pain. Our bodies aren’t built to endure prolonged stress and eventually it comes out in ways they never expected.

It’s important to keep this in mind and know your friend may be primarily focused on survival. By supporting your friend, you can help them so they don’t get to this “flight or fight” stage which can evolve into emotional crying and even deep depression. 

Caregivers often experience levels of stress that they may not even fully comprehend. They’re immersed in the day-to-day responsibilities and the constant unpredictability of caregiving, which can compound their stress levels without them realizing it. Caught up in the moment-to-moment demands and consumed by fear and worry, caregivers often overlook the impact it has on their own well-being.

If you’re looking to provide support during this tough time, whether you’re just starting to understand their journey or have been there every step of the way, this post is for you! Some of this information is beneficial to finding out before they step into a caregiver role but if they have already stepped into this role, it’s like they say, better late than never. 

In this post, we’ll help guide you in understanding what the caregiver needs to help you figure out where you can best fit in. We’ll also provide practical tips and ideas to inspire you to offer meaningful assistance, easing the burden for your friend and nurturing a stronger bond of friendship along the way.

How to Be There Physically and Emotionally

Reaching out to caregivers means more than most people know or understand.

If your friend’s loved one has an upcoming surgery or important appointment planned, put a reminder on your calendar or phone a day or two before. This will remind you of their upcoming appointment(s) so you can send a text or give them a call to let them know you are thinking of them and wish them well. 

If your friend will be in a hospital waiting room, ask them if they have someone to sit with them or if they’d like you to be there. Some caregivers want the support while others want to be left alone to wander, read, play a game or watch a movie to keep their mind occupied. The important thing is to ask what they want/need and adjust your assistance accordingly. 

You may also consider setting a reminder to reach out to your friend that repeats every few days or weekly depending on the situation. Be sure to let them know they do not need to respond to you, but you want them to know they are on your mind and that you care. Just a little note, scripture, quote, gif, or even a few emojis can show them they are in your heart and that you appreciate them and your friendship. Your friend may not respond, but they will think of your text throughout the day and it will give them some much needed feel-good moments.

Supporting caregivers is crucial, as they often lack interaction beyond their caregiving duties. A personal connection not only demonstrates care but also links them to life beyond their immediate environment. It’s noteworthy that without regular check-ins, caregivers may feel neglected, fostering a sense of isolation and insignificance. This creates even more feelings of disconnect from the world which can bring on depression and anxiety. 

How to Connect Effectively and Avoid Common Communication Pitfalls

Navigating conversations during challenging times can be tough. We often find ourselves wanting to offer support but unsure of what to say or how to help. It’s completely normal to feel this way, as we haven’t all been equipped with the tools for effective communication during difficult seasons.

While there is no perfect statement that works with everyone in every situation, our hope is that we can help you choose the most effective ones and avoid the unhelpful or hurtful ones. Also, keep in mind that your friend is walking a journey which may remove them from their typical self and they may not act like the friend you have come to know and love. Offer them grace because it’s a hard season of life. 

Common Communication Stumbling Blocks

Although many of us understand not to utter phrases such as “It could have been worse” or “This too shall pass,” there are some more common statements that can cause hurt, miscommunication resulting in their feeling like you don’t care or your don’t have time for them. Let’s walk through a few.

“If there is anything I can do, let me know.”

This is one of the most common statements and has a tendency to feel insincere because more often than not it lacks genuine intent because there isn’t any action. It can be very awkward for those who struggle asking for help. And let’s face it, most caregivers are not going to ask for help and most people know they won’t. 

“I wish there was something I could do.” 

This statement can appear that they don’t have anything to offer. They are too busy in our own little worlds, dealing with their own problems and don’t have time to offer to help. So, avoid this statement if you indeed do have time and a desire to help. 

“I’m here if you need me.”

Although this statement can express genuine concern, it’s sometimes uttered without much consideration. Its vagueness often results in it being easily forgotten or overlooked. 

So, if some of the above common statements can cause hurt or feel ingenuine, what do you say? 

When reaching out to your friend, consider asking, “How are you feeling today?” or “What’s your biggest challenge right now?” These questions convey genuine care and provide caregivers with an opening to share their struggles, enabling you to offer assistance based on their needs.

If you feel at a loss of what to do, the important step is reaching out, and never hesitate to say, “I’m truly sorry I didn’t reach out sooner. I was not sure what to say.” It’s better to admit uncertainty than to leave your friend feeling like you don’t care. Saying you care but admitting you’re not sure how to help shows you really do care. Never forget to give yourself some grace. You don’t need to be perfect – you just need to be present. 

Many times caregivers just need a listening ear or a shoulder to cry on. They want to express their pain and frustration to someone other than the person they are caring for because that may not be well-received. Just be there to hear their pain and be intentional about listening. This shows them you genuinely care about them. Remember, you don’t have to fix their problems. Your role as their friend is to support them so they can go back to caregiving and deal with any challenges they are going through. Sometimes, just knowing someone cares and is there to listen can make a significant difference and lighten their emotional load. 

Listening to them will also give them the message that they can always ask you for help when they need it or feel ready for it, even if it’s a hug on a bad day or to sit and chat. You can tell them, “I’m here for you and I’ll be by your side and walk with you until the storm turns into a rainbow.”

Show You Care Through Food

Some caregivers may face challenges in finding the time to prepare a nutritious meal every day. Balancing work, household duties, and caregiving responsibilities can make it difficult to prioritize cooking a healthy meal.

Traditionally, when someone is in need or going through a challenging time, loved ones rally around with homemade meals. While meal trains organized by family members, friends or church groups are a common way to provide support during difficult times, they may not always be necessary or feasible for everyone. For some individuals or families, coordinating meal schedules or accommodating dietary restrictions can be challenging.

Maybe your friend doesn’t have family around or they haven’t built up their support team to offer aid in this time of need. Or maybe cooking isn’t your thing or you don’t have time to cook for your friend. Here’s a few ideas to offer support whether you cook or not. 

  • Bring a meal. If you know their likes and are aware of any diet restrictions, drop off an already made dinner for them to heat or freeze. This gives them the choice to consume or save for later which is helpful for those with unexpected days in the ER or upcoming surgeries and treatments. 
  • Share your meal. Share your meal with them by offering some of your dinner. “I’ve made a big pot of chili. Would you like me to bring some over to you?” or “I’m ordering pizza tonight. Can I order one for you too?” “I’m putting a lasagna in the oven. Would you like me to bring over a plate or some leftovers for you to heat up for lunch?” “I’m baking cookies. Would you like some for dessert tonight?”
  • Provide dinner from a restaurant. While giving a gift card is great for those who don’t live near by and is convenient, it may not be for the caregiver. It means they need to order and figure out pick up/delivery. Giving cash or a gift card can also feel like you are under the impression they are not financially able to pay for dinner. Instead, you can ask them to give you their dinner order, or if they are tech savvy they can order a meal of their choosing online and then you can pick it up and deliver it to them. Most places you can pay for the meal when you pick it up and it’s a lot fresher when you do this step vs have them deliver it. Dropping off hot food also means you won’t stay long but are able to give them a hug when you arrive with their dinner. 

As always, if you are considering some of these ideas, check in with your friend to see what is best for them. 

Show You Care Through a Visit

Be intentional when visiting – plan ahead and refrain from dropping by unexpectedly unless you’ve confirmed it’s welcome with your friend beforehand.

When planning a visit, it’s essential to respect the caregiver’s space and schedule. Rather than dropping by unannounced, ask for permission beforehand and provide a timeframe for your visit. This allows them to plan accordingly, whether it’s completing household tasks or doing their needed therapy. It also gives them an opportunity to tidy up, addressing any potentially embarrassing items like soiled clothes or a sink full of dishes.

Consider that, for both caregivers and those receiving care, a cluttered home can create discomfort when welcoming visitors. While you may not mind dishes in the sink or unfolded laundry, it’s important to recognize that it may matter to them.

Additionally, be mindful of the duration of your visit. While your presence is appreciated, extended stays can be draining for both the patient and the caregiver. They’re likely juggling numerous responsibilities, and prolonged periods visiting can add stress to an already demanding situation. Keeping your visit brief demonstrates consideration for their well-being and acknowledges the myriad tasks they have on their plate.

How to Show you Care Despite a Busy Schedule

Many caregivers struggle to ask for help, often feeling that their tasks are too insignificant for others to handle. They understand their family and friends are caught up in their own busy lives, making it more challenging to seek assistance.

For some caregivers, stepping out for 30 minutes to get groceries can feel impossible. However, having someone else handle simple tasks such as picking up groceries or chopping vegetables can greatly alleviate the caregiver’s load and provide much needed relief.

There are many things you can do and say to help a caregiver and show you want to help even if you have a full plate with your own life.

Here are a few ways you can support a caregiver and demonstrate your willingness to assist. 

  • I’m going to the grocery store. What’s on your list I can pick up for you?
  • I’m going to Costco today, is there anything I can get up for you?
  • I’m at Starbucks grabbing a coffee, can I bring you a coffee/tea?
  • I’m going to WalMart tomorrow. If you place an order, I’ll pick it up for you.
  • I’m going to Jersey Mikes, Salad and Go, etc., what can I bring you?
  • My spouse wants to visit your loved one, do you want to go for lunch or take a walk with me?
  • I have nothing on my calendar for Tuesday so I’ll come to your house for a few hours and I can help prepare food prep, fold laundry or sit with your loved one so you can get a few things done. 

It’s best to refrain from directly proposing to clean someone’s home unless you’re intimately acquainted with them and confident their disposition aligns with being receptive to such gestures. Caregivers typically juggle multiple responsibilities, with cleaning often not being their foremost concern. Instead, when offering assistance, it’s better to present a range of options, allowing them to select what they need and want most, which might include help with household tasks or just running to the grocery store or pharmacy for them. These tasks, though seemingly small, can alleviate some of the caregiver’s burden and provide much-needed relief. 

How to Show You Care Through Small Gestures

You don’t have to lavish your friend with gifts or book them a spa day. Small gestures can speak volumes. Offering a heartfelt note, a caring text message, or a small gift can truly uplift their spirits and reassure them of your support during challenging times. Remember, it’s not about the monetary value of the gift, but rather the sentiment behind it – knowing that you took the time to select something special and deliver it as a gesture of how much care.

Need some inspiration? Here are a few ideas: 

  • A favorite treat such as a chocolate bar, candied nuts, cookies, ice cream or wine. 
  • A potted plant or bouquet of flowers to brighten their space.
  • A jigsaw puzzle to take a break and shift their focus away from their current situation.
  • A bowl, tin or bag of popcorn with an Amazon or Apple gift card to rent a movie. 
  • A soothing bath bomb or bath salts for a rejuvenating soak.
  • A candle or essential oils which have therapeutic benefits.
  • A mug with some relaxing herbal tea to help them wind down at the end of the day.
  • A journal or guided mindfulness book to encourage self-reflection.

Ultimately, it’s the genuine intention behind your actions and words that truly matter. Even if you have a busy life of your own, showing up for a caregiver in meaningful ways can make a world of difference and strengthen your bond with them.

We hope this has been helpful and you feel better equipped to help care for your caregiver friend. If your friend will be in the caregiver role for an extended period of time, consider connecting them with Neighbors Who Care. We have a team of caring and dedicated volunteers ready to help. We have numerous services including Respite Care. Click HERE to see all our services.

Another very helpful tool is our Caregiver Guide which you can email or print for them. Click HERE to visit our caregiver page filled with resources, free downloads and articles to help them on their caregiver journey.