Five Things You Should Never Say to Someone Taking Care of An Aging Parent (And What to Say Instead!)

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Sometimes our well-meaning words don’t have the effect we mean them to have. Learn what a caregiver hates to hear and what to say to a caregiver instead.

Have you ever been in a mixed group of adults when the conversation turns to parenting? The parents in the room may share an anecdote or two and then the non-parents start to chime in with their opinion on your parenting. You probably smile and nod while secretly hoping they are blessed with a difficult child.

I get it. I had a boat load of parenting opinions that flew out the window the second I gave birth to my firstborn. Of course I never meant any ill-will toward the parents that were forced to listen to my inexperienced advice. Nevertheless, I’m sure my opinions sounded downright insulting to those in the parenting trenches rather than my pre-kid, philosophical self.

When I became a caregiver, I realized that just like the utopian parenting opinions of childless “parents”, the opinions of non-caregivers are abundant. Sometimes the (most often) well-meaning words of friends and family can feel very insulting and belittling to the caregiver. While it’s important for the listener to realize these comments are unintentionally hurtful, it is also beneficial for non-caregivers to guard their comments.

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A Note to the Caregiver

Your journey is unique. What seems completely obvious to you is not as obvious to everyone else. It’s important that you recognize that even in similar situations, your journey is not going to appear the same to someone else. While there are many horrible people out there who make it their mission to be insulting, most people are speaking out of concern for you and your situation.

Related Post: The Many Roles of Caregiving

Instead of being offended by someone’s comments:

  • Educate them. Fill them in on aspects of your parent’s care they might not be aware of. Let them know details of your experience. Most often people misspeak from a lack of experience and based on reading a random article that showed up in their newsfeed.
  • Invite civil conversation. Instead of jumping down someone’s throat because they said something that offended you, ask them why they feel that way. They may have tried something with your parent you haven’t thought of yet that absolutely worked. You might be able to provide some insight as they struggle with their own emotions concerning your parents increased needs.
  • Move on. Realize that the commenter is speaking from very limited experience with a very different situation. If you feel their comment was meant as an insult, do your best to eliminate that person’s influence in your life. If they just don’t know what they’re talking about, move on. Holding a grudge or becoming bitter over one person’s opinion is a huge waste of your already limited energy.

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    Comment #1

    “They don’t seem so bad.”

    Just like everyone else, our parents have good days and bad days. There are some days (especially when we first started caregiving) where I was certain my MIL was acting. She seemed perfectly lucid and normal. This could go on for days. Then something would happen and we would be reminded of why and how much she needs us.

    Do you know how kids will act like perfect little angels around other people but then their not-so-perfect character comes out at home with those they are around most often? Yeah, our parents do that too. If we’re honest we all do that. We let our guard down at home and that means that our worst side is shown to those we care most about.

    Related Post: Why Caring for Aging Parents is Easier with Kids

    That being sad, saying something like “they don’t seem so bad” completely invalidates our struggles and implies that we are exaggerating our daily life.

    Instead say…

    Instead of letting us know that you didn’t find our life so hard just let us know that our parent had a great day. Our mission in caregiving is to see our parent have the best life possible at this point. We realize needing help is tough and not what anyone plans but we want them to be happy. If they had a good day, let us know.

    Comment #2

    “Well, if it were me I would…”

    Every caregiver gets to a point where they just don’t know what to do next. At those times your tips and suggestions are welcome with much gratitude. Offering suggestions in the form of “constructive” criticism however is not. Most often these criticisms come from people with a romantic idea of caregiving who have no real experience in what actually goes on. Throwing hypothetical situations at us is not helpful and just adds to our stress. It implies that our caregiving is now under your analysis and judgement.

    Instead say…

    When a caregiver complains about a difficulty they’re having, it’s usually to just vent. If we don’t vent to others, our frustrations can come out in our caregiving. Very rarely when someone is complaining to you about a situation in their lives do they not ask for your input if they need it.

    Listening to a caregiver as they vent about their struggles is a tremendous help. It takes a wise listener to know when to be silent and when to offer advice. If you truly have a desire to make our lives easier, instead of offering your advice, ask for ways you can help.

    Related Post: The Dangers of Complaining

    Comment #3

    “I just can’t stand to see him/her like that.”

    It’s hard to watch people we know and love slowly die. Watching a loved one gradually become more childlike, forgetting who you are, and losing more memories by the day is excruciating. I understand seeing someone who was once so capable become a mere shell of the person they once were is not easy.

    Saying you can’t stand to see them like this though is a feeble excuse. Caregivers daily fight the raw, consuming emotion that comes with a slow death. We ask God daily what purpose He has in keeping our loved one on this earth especially as we watch disease eat away at their minds and bodies. There is no easy answer.

    Instead say…

    Ask us how we handle it. Let us help you get to the point that you can swallow your emotions and visit with your loved one. It makes such a difference! My MIL will not remember your call or visit in her mind but I am continuously amazed at the difference even a short, 5 minute phone call makes to her spirit.

    Comment #4

    “Why don’t you just put them in a home?”

    It seems like an easy and obvious solution, doesn’t it? Sometimes putting our parent in “a home” is the best thing for them. Sometimes it is the only solution. A lot of times, it’s just the easy solution to a difficult situation.

    There are several reasons families don’t put their aging loved ones “in a home”:

    • The cost. This is a huge roadblock to the majority of caregivers of aging parents. A good assisted living facility in the US costs upwards of $5,000 per month. When you add skilled nursing to that you are looking at $10,000+ per month.
    • A promise. Most of us are caregivers because we made a promise not to put our parent in a home. While there are many great facilities out there, the idea of being separated from our homes and families terrifies us!
    • Desire. I know it seems weird to some, but there are many of us taking care of our parents because we want to. Yes, it is hard but I don’t ever question our decision.

    Instead say…

    Admit to us that you don’t know what you would do in our situation. Know that if and when we put my MIL in “a home” it will be because it is the best option for her at that time and it will not be a decision we make lightly.

    Comment #5

    “Anything I can do to help, just let me know.”

    This is not unique to caregiving. We hear this a lot in many difficult times and situations. Usually, we say it because we don’t know what else to say. We have a desire to be sensitive and caring. But, it’s also usually just our way of being nice. Most of us know that this offer is not going to be taken seriously. In fact, most caregivers are going to assume you don’t really mean it; that you just want to appear nice and close the conversation on a positive note.

    Instead say…

    Let us know exactly how you want to help.

    • Can you offer us an afternoon to stay with our parent while we run errands?
    • Are you able to send a card or special gift to our parent?
    • Are you able to bring us a meal?
    • Do you have time to arrange for sitters and take us out for coffee?
    • Are you willing to let us privately vent without judgement?

    Providing someone with a way you are willing to help will go a long way in showing your sincerity.

    Our society right now is easily offended. There are people out there wearing their heart on their sleeve ready to be offended by anything that comes from your mouth no matter your intentions. In the same way though, knowing what to say to a caregiver can go a long way in easing their stress.

    “Wise men speak because they have something to say; fools because they have to say something.” -Plato

    Did you like this post? Do you have any advice about what to say to a caregiver? Let me know in the comments below!

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