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10 Things Not to Say to Caregivers

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Updated August 07, 2013

Do you have a friend who is a caregiver for a loved one? Or, do you know someone whose professional job consists of taking care of others? Whether this role is paid or unpaid, life-encompassing or part-time, for a family member or a patient, there are some things better left unsaid.

Good Intentions

Most of our comments are meant to express our appreciation and provide encouragement to caregivers. We may want to acknowledge the difficulty of the caregiver’s job or offer our assistance to a family caregiver. We mean well, we want to help, and we know caregiving must be a hard job. So, we take a stab at expressing these things. Sometimes, it comes out well and we can just tell our goal of offering encouragement was achieved.

Other times, not so much.

How Are Your Comments Received by Caregivers?

If you're anything like me, you'll read through the list below and cringe a couple of times, thinking, "I've said that before. I had no idea that wasn't a helpful thing to say."

Sometimes, how our comments are perceived depends on how the caregiver is feeling at that particular moment. There are times when caregivers may feel frustrated, exhausted, or discouraged, and at those times, it might be difficult for them to hear your well-meaning but blundering comments in a positive way.

Most of the time, however, when we intend to express encouragement to caregivers, caregivers will receive our comments with gratitude, even if they’re not perfectly articulated. So, hang in there. As you'll read below, it's almost always better to say something rather than nothing, in terms of comments to caregivers.

What NOT to Say

With a thank you to some caregiver friends who’ve provided a few of these insights, here are the top 10 things not to say to caregivers:

  • Wow- You look so tired!

    Umm, thanks. Meant in an empathetic way, this comment just is not encouraging. Whether the caregiver was having a good day (and now is considering why she looks really tired when she feels okay) or an exhausting day, this comment generally needs to go through your mental filter and be discarded.

  • I don’t know how you do it!

    How this comment is said makes a difference. At best, it simply acknowledges the busy life and challenges of the role of caregiver. What's not helpful is when it's said as if the job itself would be too awful to do and is such a chore.

  • Your mother was such a beautiful person.

    What a wonderful thing to say- just change the "was" to "is." Talking in the past tense about someone who is ill but still alive can be hurtful, as if you've given up on them already.

  • God doesn’t give you more than you can handle.

    Another well-meaning phrase, but when it's said in the middle of the trenches and the person doesn't know how much longer he can do it, it feels like it really is more than he can handle.

  • It must take a special person to do this job.

    This is another comment that can be said in different ways. One way isn't so bad; it acknowledges that the person does have a special gift for caring for others. But sometimes it's said in a ways that can feel patronizing, as in, "I can't believe you actually chose this job. You must be somewhat crazy or desperate."

  • You'll get your reward in heaven.

    As one friend stated, "Actually, I'd like a nap and some time away from it all on earth, please." Someone else who cares for her disabled child said she'd do anything for her kids, and that this phrase made it feel less than that, as if she were doing it for a heavenly reward.

  • Call me if you need anything.

    A perfectly genuine remark, and most people who say it really mean it. But in a sense, it almost adds something to the To Do list. It's better to call the caregiver with a specific offer of help.

  • Where's your faith? I'm sure it's all for the best.

    Perhaps you can see a blessing in the midst of the storm, but for the caregiver who is deluged by the pain and grief of that storm, it might be just plain hard. Sometimes, a listening ear without the platitudes can be a gift to the caregiver.

  • What can I do to help?

    Yikes- I've said this one before, and I really meant it. I wasn't sure what to do to help, I had a genuine desire to help, and so I asked. However, unless a caregiver is extremely prepared, they might not know how to answer this question. As a friend said about this comment, "It's too hard to think of anything in that moment. Say exactly how you can provide help."

  • Nothing.

    One caregiver pointed out that she could handle whatever people said because she knew they cared, even if it might not have been the most helpful thing to say. She stated, "It was harder to understand those people who said nothing at all. Please, please encourage people to ask their friends and family, 'How is your loved one?'" Silence is not golden here.

What to Say Instead

Try these comments, instead:

  • Can I help by driving you to the doctor?
  • I’d like to come over and sit with your husband while you go out.
  • What day this week works to bring dinner over?
  • I’m praying for you.
  • How is your loved one doing?
  • Here’s a gift certificate for ice cream or coffee.
  • Would you like to talk about it?
  • How are you really doing?
  • Can I help you with the laundry?
  • I thought of you and would like to bring by a care package. When may I stop by?

Caring for the Caregiver:

10 Things to Stop Doing if You're a Caregiver for Someone with Dementia

For the Caregiver: Gifts to Give Yourself

7 Signs of Caregiver Overload

A Dementia Caregiver's Wish List

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