By Elizabeth Guttenberg, LMSW, Senior Care Advisor
Q: My 87-year-old father has Parkinson’s disease and lives with my sister. We pay someone to come to the home to help out a few days a week, but most of the time she’s taking care of him herself. I live almost an hour away and help out when I can, but I also have a full-time job and two kids to take care of. My sister is pretty territorial about looking after Dad anyway so I’m not even sure she would accept more help. I get worried about her burning out though. How can I help my sister without undermining her role as chief caregiver or taking on too much myself?
A: How timely a question this is! It just so happens that February 14-20 is national Random Acts of Kindness Week (who knew?). And no matter how “random” this annual event may seem, it may be a great opportunity for you and other caregivers out there to provide some additional support and warmth to the “chief caregiver” in your families. As you likely know, when there are multiple children involved one typically becomes the primary caregiver. This doesn’t mean other siblings don’t help out or care, but one person is usually the quarterback. Supporting the primary caregiver and showing appreciation is important, but not always easy.
Before I start with the suggestions, I’d like to point out that many people derive a great deal of joy and satisfaction from their role as caregiver. So before you jump to the conclusion that your sister will burn out, perhaps start by assessing the impact her responsibilities are actually having on her. Is her caregiving role isolating her from normal social contact with friends and other family members? How are her physical health and self-care habits? Have you noticed a negative shift in her mood or behavior? If you answered yes to any of these questions, then perhaps your sister is struggling with caregiver stress, a condition that could lead to burnout and should be taken seriously.
The good news is that there are many ways in which you can help your sister feel supported without diminishing the satisfaction she derives as a caregiver. Because you (along with many others reading this column) want to be helpful but do not know exactly what to do, ask your sister where she would most appreciate additional support. People often say, “Let me know if there’s anything I can help with,” but thinking of answers to that question may just feel like more work for the caregiver. It is more helpful to make suggestions about specific tasks. For example, you could offer to make dinner or take your dad out for a meal once every other week. Perhaps you could take your dad to the park while your sister and her friends get a mani/pedi or watch a football game. If she dismisses these ideas as inadequate and does seem to be approaching burnout, then it may be time to increase hired support for your dad or tap into local resources such as Meals on Wheels or transit service.
Need more suggestions? Remember that even the smallest gestures can make a huge impact. When my mom was caring for my father, two of her friends came over when she wasn’t home to plant tulip bulbs in our garden. When they bloomed in the spring, she was surprised and touched—and reminded of the love and support that surrounded her throughout that difficult time. So my suggestion? Do some digging around to find out what your sister really wants and needs, and then think about creative ways to provide it. Most importantly, never underestimate the value of saying “thank you.” And please remember: your Care.com Care Advisor is available to help with resources and guidance.
Need tips on caring for the caregiver? Contact a Care Advisor at Care.com. We are master’s-level social workers specializing in adult and senior care. Call us today at (855) 781-1303 or email questions to firstname.lastname@example.org