With thousands of caregivers in our country, we all have friends or family who are busy juggling care for multiple people while running households, maintaining jobs, raising children, and more. They are busy, often exhausted. We recognize their struggle and we want to help. Our first inclination is to ask, “How I can I help?”
The question comes easily to us for many reasons. We don’t want to put additional burdens on our family and friends. We don’t want to step on toes or wear out our welcome. We don’t want to intrude. We truly want to offer in a way that actually helps. We want to take on their most pressing responsibilities. We want to be the most helpful that we can during a time of stress.
Does that Phrase Actually Help?
Asking if you can help and how you can help can cause additional stress and not bring the welcome relief you are hoping to provide.
The reality is that sometimes we can bring more responsibilities and stress to a caregiver by asking open-ended questions. When we ask, “Can I help you?” we give the caregiver another thing to think about. They have to prioritize daily activities and consider what to sacrifice. Sometimes we are actually saying, “Quickly, think through your tasks and choose one for me.”
When you ask a caregiver how to help, you also give them the burden of not wanting to burden you. Caregivers are used to juggling numerous tasks and may feel guilty giving anything up or adding tasks to your plate. Unfortunately, even though it is not our intent, the underlying question is “Do you want my help?” or “Do really need me?”
Think Before You Speak
To avoid bringing additional stress, we shouldn’t avoid helping altogether. Caregivers need support. The Caregiver Action Network reports that physical breaks can go a long way in alleviating and preventing caregiver isolation and depression.
When you know your loved one or friend could use a break or some help, think about your suggestion before the conversation starts. Have a plan in mind to avoid the mental crutch of “How can I help?” The key to bringing real help and relief to a caregiver is being specific in your offer to help. Don’t ask, “Can I?” but offer a very particular suggestion. Know the caregivers needs, anticipate the help you can bring, and offer that specifically. This saves the caregiver from having to think through both her and your schedule. It also makes it abundantly clear that you truly want to help and have a plan to make it happen.
The more specific you can be, the better. In a June 2012 article in the Chicago Tribune, entitled Kindness in Action, our own Brooks Kenny said that the “Golden Rule” is the best approach to avoiding the open ended question and getting specific. Thinking about how you would like to be helped can lead you to just the right suggestion. The more you know about the caregiving situation and the closer you are to the caregiver, the more specifics you will know, but even if you know very little, imagine what you might find helpful. A meal? Running errands? Laundry or housecleaning? A manicure, pedicure, or day at the spa? Putting yourself in their shoes for just a moment will bring the compassion and clarity you need to offer the best help.
The What, When, and Where
Another trick you can use to make sure you are avoiding burdensome vagueness is to provide the What, the When, and the Where of the help you are providing. Tell them first exactly what you’re bringing, doing, or providing. Are you bringing a meal? What foods, with which ingredients, are you bringing? Are you taking on the carpool? Which one?
Now get specific with when. What day and time are you bringing that meal? And how long are you staying? How often are you planning to run errands and how long will they take?
Don’t forget the where. Are you bringing the meal to the house or just leaving it on the porch?
Look to Your Own Strengths
One way to provide the most help with the least amount of guilt on the caregiver’s part is to use your own interests, schedule, or strengths as a guide. Do you have professional or personal experience with organizing medical reports and documents? Are you a whiz at cooking a certain dish or know their favorite comfort food? Are you already running certain errands every week? Offering those natural solutions allow you to offer sustainable help and allow the caregiver to accept help with grace and gratitude.
How to Know What They Need
Sometimes we fall back on the question of “How can I help?” because we truly aren’t sure what the caregiver needs help with. We don’t want to be a burden so we ask the question because it’s better than not offering anything at all. If they don’t have one already, setting up a Lotsa Community is a great start. The community serves as a central hub of information and communication for everyone, both local and around the world, to be aware of the caregiver’s and the patient’s needs. This will allow volunteers and community members to stay up to date on a caregivers needs and offer specific solutions for help. It gives everyone those specific what, when, and where offers so no one is left saying, “Can I help?”