All I want for Christmas is:
1. An empathic ear. Caregiving is intense, and new challenges arise every single day. Even if they sound like the same things over and over to outsiders, for caregivers each one is a new mountain to climb.
My wish: Friends and family who are open to listening - without judging or criticizing. It helps me to talk or email about these challenges, frustrations and heartbreaks. That may involve laughing, crying or just matter-of-fact relating of the circumstances. It may mean talking through a decision making process and providing feedback. Talking (some would say venting) is often the only way I can work through them and move on to the next challenge. If you feel like you "don't know how to help" the caregiver in your life, remember that sometimes just listening is indeed helping. Another point: if you aren't open to hear about the challenges, you're the last person I want to tell about the triumphs, joys and hilarious things that do happen on a regular basis too.
2. Positive reinforcement. So many very well-meaning people are quick to (lovingly) offer their opinion of what I should be doing differently. And it's often much appreciated. I'm the primary caregiver for two parents who have lots of needs - of course I'm constantly questioning and trying to do things better! But what about the positives? What about the things I'm doing right?
My wish: to hear more, on a regular basis, about the things I'm doing well - the things you admire. The things I do that make a positive difference in my parents' lives. My ability to do the "right thing." The choices I make that are positive in terms of taking care of myself (much needed for all caregivers.) The positives are what keep me going.
3. Practical help. People are often telling me I do too much and look exhausted, which isn't all that helpful (I already know that) unless it's followed by a practical offer of help. I also sometimes get offers of "let me know if there is anything I can do to help." Which are really nice, but again not as helpful. I've got my hands full - I often don't have time stop and think of things for people to do.
My wish: for people to observe, ask, jump in, and do. Really DO and follow through. Honestly, offers to help that aren't followed through do more damage than good because I get my hopes up and then am disappointed. Some examples to help you get the picture:
- "I'll research that new medication your mother is on and get back to you today."
- "I'll go and see your parents for an hour or two while you go do something fun or get your work done." (respite!)
- "I'll sort that huge stack of mail for you."
- "I'll water your plants at home twice a week for you so it's one less thing for you to worry about."
- "I'm going to the store - is there anything I can pick up for you or your parents?"
- "I'll go with you next time you take your Mom and Dad to a fun outing - let's set the date now."
- "I'll look over your parents' new health insurance info and give you a summary."
- "I'll come over and help you put up your Christmas decorations - it will take half the time and we'll have fun doing it. Then you can get back to your duties with your parents."
4. Connection. Caregiving can be incredibly isolating. Every moment of my life seems to be filled with balancing work, hands-on care or coordinating other caregivers, paperwork and finances, my own housework and maintenance. Never mind disposable income - I don't even have disposable time! Therefore, time to reach out to friends is very, very narrow or even non-existent. It's the irony of caregiving: we need connection more than ever, and yet the specific demands of caregiving often cause us to lose our social connections.
My wish: for people to reach out on a regular basis. This does not have to be a major effort. While spending actual in-person time together is the best, that's not always possible, so it could be:
- Sending a funny greeting card in the mail on a regular basis (finding some "good mail" in the huge stack of mail I manage for my parents and me is an extra special gift!)
- A quick email just to connect (and please don't be offended if I don't have time to respond!)
- A phone call or message just to say hello (again - if I don't reply it's just because I'm frantically on the go - don't take it personally!)
- Surprise delivery items like flowers or edible fruit bouquets (my sister sent me chocolate dipped strawberries one day just for fun with a note of thanks for what I do - that meant so much to me!)
5. Fun. I know - it seems so obvious but still needs to be said. We caregivers deal with a lot. Most of us try to also have some fun with the loved ones we are caring for, but we need to kick back and have fun on our own now and then! The longer I am caregiving, the simpler that fun can be and still give me a big lift.
My wish: for people to arrange fun for me! It's best to have company to do these fun things, but, again, not always possible. So our friends and family can still help us have fun! A few ideas to make it easier for the caregivers in your lives to have some fun:
- Go to a movie - or send movie tickets or a good DVD; we're more apt to take the time to go or watch if we have the items in hand
- Make a CD of fun, uplifting, empowering and energizing music
- Take a walk together - or talk on the phone while you're both taking walks in different places
- Have lunch or coffee - or send gift cards for fave restaurant or coffee shop
- Set up a fun class or workshop to take together - or do a little research about what's available in the area where the caregiver in your life lives and send a list of fun classes or workshops that might interest them
- Set up a webcam for Skype or use Face Time and set up a date to show each other your holiday decorations, new outfit or furniture, pets, garden, or even watch your favorite TV show together - and laugh!
The bottom line: The gifts caregivers most want are not big-ticket items. They are the things that soothe our souls, give us a smile and make us feel less alone. This is an important and challenging time in our lives and we often have no idea how long it will continue. It becomes a way of life. We just want a little support to keep going and feel the joyful moments.
Photo credit: Amy Goyer
Amy Goyer is AARP's Family, Caregiving & Multigenerational Issues Expert; she splits her time between Washington, D.C. and Phoenix, Ariz. where she is caregiving for her Dad who lives with her. She is the author of AARP's Juggling Work and Caregiving. Follow Amy on Twitter @amygoyer and on Facebook.