The caregiver approach
Being a caregiver can be rewarding, exhausting, uplifting, and frustrating — sometimes all on the same day.
If you are supporting a family member or friend through a serious illness such as cancer, the pressure is on to bring your “A game”, even when you feel like curling up in a ball.
Knowing how to navigate the experience, without losing sight of your own wellbeing, is important.
How can I provide emotional care?
As a caregiver — that’s someone caring for a family member or loved one — just being there counts as emotional support. This might be as simple as offering companionship and a willing ear.
Experts recommend being an active, non-judgemental listener1. That means truly listening to what’s being said, rather than thinking of what you’re going to say next.
It’s also important to let the person be sad and cry if they want to. It’s not your job to keep things happy all the time. Allowing them to feel all of their emotions, the good and the bad, can be therapeutic in its own way.
People undergoing cancer treatment can experience a range of emotions. They might be fearful, angry, scared, and even lash out at those closest to them. Understanding why this is happening may help you feel less hurt by it and enable you to create strategies to deal with more difficult times.
Talking about the hard stuff
Many of us find it hard to know what to say even to those closest to us when they are ill, and it’s common to be worried that you might upset someone by saying the wrong thing.
While there’s no official handbook on what to say to people with cancer, there are a few common themes that are best avoided, such as:
- Telling people they need to stay strong and positive
- Talking about someone else you know who has beaten cancer
- Asking too many personal questions
- Not talking about the situation at all
If you don’t know where to start, ask if there’s something the person you’re caring for wants to talk about.
Ask open questions, such as: what has today been like for you? Or, tell me how your week has been?
Remember they may not want to talk at all. And that’s ok. Let them know you’re ready when they are.
Taking care of the caregiver
Caring can be demanding, tiring and stressful work. You can become so caught up in supporting someone else that you put your own wellbeing on the backburner.
You might even feel guilty when you are not with the person you’re caring for — wasting precious moments away from their side. But to be an empathetic and effective caregiver, you need to look after yourself.
Use this checklist as a starting point for your own self-care.
- Be kind to yourself. This is a stressful time for you too, so forgive yourself for any feelings of despair or exasperation. You’re doing a great job.
- Take time out. Meet a friend for coffee, go to the gym, do something creative. Having a little “me time” will recharge your batteries.
- Practice good self-care2. Remember to eat healthily, keep hydrated, exercise regularly, and get enough sleep. Relax in any way that suits you — perhaps take a bath or read a book.
- Assemble a team of supporters so there’s someone who can step in when you need a break or be on hand to chat when you’re feeling low.
- Seek out a support group of fellow caregivers either in your local area or online4.
- Consider counseling. Having a safe space to talk about your feelings is not a sign of weakness.
- Don’t expect perfection. You’re human, and the person you are caring for knows this.
Getting help with practical care
Looking after someone who is sick often means taking sole responsibility for the upkeep of the home and managing all family affairs.
You’ll also be the one who provides transport, shops and cooks, looks after the children (and the pets) if there are any — all this on top of new regular duties such as administering medication, going to medical appointments, helping with personal care and working out finances.
It’s important to ask for and accept offers of help. You are not a superhero. When people say, “Let me know if there’s anything I can do,” tell them yes, there is. Ask them to cook a meal, cut the grass, pick up some groceries, or take the dog for a walk.
If you are struggling on a practical or financial level, find out what resources are provided locally. You may be eligible for help with cooking and cleaning services, assistance with shopping, transport, respite care, and other tailored support packages.
Some useful places to start in the US include Cancer.Org and Cancer Care, or search online for state-specific services.
Assisting with medical care
As a caregiver, you’re on both teams — patient and care team. You’re going to get a crash course in processes and treatments you were once blissfully unaware existed, and it’s important that you have a good understanding of what goes on at appointments.
These tips may help you feel you’re keeping control of the situation.
- Do some research so you can ask informed questions. Consult reliable sources such as the GenesisCare website, or government cancer health websites and organizations.
- Note down any questions both you and the person you’re caring for have, so you don’t get “appointment amnesia” and forget everything you wanted to ask. For suggestions, see this Questions Checklist.
- Record any recent changes in the person’s condition or symptoms so you can tell the doctor about them.
- Take notes during appointments or ask if you can record the conversation on your phone.
- Write down any specific instructions and ask for clarification on anything you don’t understand.
- Ask what you should be watching out for, and what to do if you notice changes.