Caregiving is a part of life and everyone will probably become one at one time or another. You may have a friend or family member who is a caregiver. You want to express and show your appreciation by offering to help and show your support. Not knowing what to say is very common, so it is normal to fall back on superficial phrases.
You may read some of these phrases and say to yourself, “I have said that!” Don’t beat yourself up, but take the advice in stride and know that the next time you will say something more helpful. We all say the wrong thing from time to time. It is never too late to regroup and make valuable contributions to a caregiver’s life.
1. “I could never do what you do.”
It’s hard to know if that can actually be true. Most people become caregivers at some point in their lives. It can happen suddenly or gradually and you may be thrust into a caregiving role that you never expected.
It is hard to imagine the myriad of caregiving duties if you haven’t experienced it yet. To say “I could never do what you do” implies that caregiving is above you. When asked to do so, you can figure out what needs to be done.
Alternative: “I know I am not there yet, but I expect to be a caregiver at some point.” This phrase acknowledges the hard work of caregiving and shows respect. It also extends an invitation for the caregiver to share their experience. You are admitting that caregiving is an alien experience for you, but one that will most likely become a part of your life.
2. “If you need anything call me.”
This is an open-ended non-committal statement that gets you off the hook of actually doing anything. The chances of the caregiver calling you for help are virtually zero.
If you really don’t want to help, then this is the phrase to use. Caregivers often don’t have the energy to delegate to someone else or are so overwhelmed, they don’t know where to start.
Alternative: “I am going to bring three dinners to you this week.” Or, any specific task that you think would be helpful. Offer, don’t ask. Other possibilities include doing laundry, picking up groceries or medications, doing internet searches for home care, or other support services. Sometimes caregivers need a break. Consider taking the caregiver for dinner or lunch or the park. Offer to arrange for respite care, either through in-home care or adult day care services.
3. “You should really take better care of yourself.”
This is not a helpful statement. Chances are the caregiver is very aware that they need to take care of themselves, but they don’t have the time. Caregiver burnout is a common condition brought on by the stress and strain of being responsible for someone’s care and well-being.
Many caregivers want to take better care of themselves, but don’t know where to start.
Alternative: “I have purchased a spa package for you to use and will arrange for someone to take care of your mom while you are gone.” This kind of statement has teeth. It offers a solution to caregiver burnout while taking care of the obvious problem of replacing the caregiver. It shows care, commitment, and thought, while acknowledging the challenges someone may have in a caregiving situation.
4. “I’m sure your mother appreciates your care.”
If only this were always true. You don’t know the situation and to make an assumption about the nature of the caregiving relationship can cause caregiver anxiety and shame.
The fact is, many parents don’t appreciate the care they receive and may even resist and refuse care. This can be an enormously frustrating and heart-breaking situation. It’s best not to make comments about the caregiving relationship unless you really know what is going on.
Alternative: “Thank you for what you are doing. It must be very challenging at times.” This statement affirms the effort and the complexity of caregiving. It also opens the door for a deeper dialogue about the nature of the caregiver’s experience.
5. “Your sacrifice for your father is so brave.”
What exactly does this mean? A caregiver’s sacrifice and love may not be from “bravery,” but in fact perhaps their duty to provide safety and care for someone they love. Caregiving is hard work and caregivers may not feel brave at all. They are doing what they feel is their loving responsibility to their parent, friend, or spouse.
Alternative: “I admire your commitment and hard work.” This statement keeps it simple and authentic. It doesn’t ascribe motives to the caregiving experience.
6. “Why don’t you get out more? We never see you anymore.”
This can strike a dagger in a caregiver’s heart. Many caregivers may be aching and desperate to get out and see friends, but they can’t.
They can’t because they don’t have the time and energy. A statement like this also implies that the caregiver could get out, but it isn’t a priority. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Alternative: “We miss you and know how difficult it is for you to get out. What if we plan a get together at your house?” Now you have verbalized a recognition of the problem and offered to solve it. If the caregiver declines the invitation, graciously accept this and let them know the offer stands at any time. Suggest other alternatives to meeting in person, like scheduled phone conversations so that you can stay connected.
7. “I could never do what you do. I just don’t have the time.”
Neither did the caregiver prior to becoming one. People are typically not sitting around with time on their hands just waiting to become a caregiver.
The reality is that caregivers have jobs, families, friends, and hobbies. They didn’t have time before and they have much less of it now. When caregiving duty calls, people make time because they have to.
Alternative: “I can’t imagine how hard this must be with all of the other responsibilities that you have right now.” You may have a hard time imagining making time for caregiving, but this statement shows empathy for the caregiver. It acknowledges that everyone is busy, but taking care of a loved one is a priority.
8. “If caregiving is so hard, why don’t you put your mom in a nursing home?”
This well-meaning suggestion implies that a nursing home will take care of the problem of caregiving. Is this what you would want for yourself?
There are very few people who may want to send their loved one to a nursing home or can even afford a nursing home. Nursing homes can sometimes be fraught with problems such as inadequate staff and infection control issues. Besides, even when someone is in a nursing home, caregiving duties don’t stop. Families have to constantly monitor and manage care.
Alternative: “I admire the fact that you have kept your mom at home knowing that this is what she wanted.” Overwhelmingly, older adults say they want to be cared for at home. This choice requires enormous sacrifice and work on the part of family caregivers.
9. “I can’t handle seeing Dad like this, it is too hard so I can’t visit right now.”
As true as this might be, it is a very selfish thing to say. Some family members or friends will struggle to be around someone with dementia. It is as if the person that you have known and loved your whole life is gone.
The experience can be very unsettling and stressful, but opting out is not a solution. Remember that it is not about you but about your family.
Alternative: “I am struggling with seeing Dad like this. Can we talk about it so I can get past these feelings?” Being transparent about your emotions is the first step to dealing honestly with them. This might require talking with a professional about the grief and anxiety you are feeling. Don’t assume that the caregiver doesn’t also have these same issues, but they have persevered despite them.
10. “At least your mom has had a long life.”
This statement implies that her life no longer has value because of her age and disabilities. It is demeaning and ageist. It also suggests that the caregiver’s efforts shouldn’t mean as much due to mom’s age. Mom is the one to decide the value of her life, regardless of her age.
Alternative: “It is amazing what good care you take of your mother.” This simple statement doesn’t devalue either the caregiver or her mother. It appreciates and respects them both. How old someone is should have no bearing on the value of the caregiving journey.
Saying Helpful Phrases to a Caregiver
Caregivers need all the help they can get. They appreciate tangible offers of help and recognition that they are doing the best that they can.
Unless you are a caregiver yourself, it can be hard to know what to do and how to do it. Start by approaching everything you say and do with compassion and care. After all, you may find yourself needing the same thing in return someday.