In the Young Caregivers section of my book Everything Changes, I write about a study that shows while cancer patients and caregivers both suffer from quality of life and mental health issues, patients have a greater sense of spiritual wellbeing and social integration than our caregiver counterparts. We tend to bounce back, and sometimes even benefit from the cancer experience, while caregivers are left alone to pick up the pieces.
Some say patients cannot help caregivers, I disagree. My husband Shannon should be canonized as a saint for his caregiving both in crisis moments and on a daily basis. It is easy to identify what he does for me, but I asked him what I do that makes his job easier. We came up with a list – it doesn’t just apply to partners, but any caregiver: parents, friends, siblings, roommates.
1. Make a break
Caregivers may feel guilty taking a break. Patients need to encourage and facilitate it when able. I email Shannon’s buddies suggesting they go out for Belgian beer. He usually won’t pick up the phone and make plans, but if his friends initiate, he goes and enjoys the time away.
2. Lean on others
Your caregiver can do a lot, but they cannot be your everything. Get support elsewhere. Sometimes when I’m crying at 3AM I pick up the phone and call my mom. Shannon is here for me too, but he is really glad to get a break and a good night sleep. Let others in.
3. Give internal updates
Be a good communicator. Let your caregiver know how you are feeling without being bratty or reactive. If my hormone therapy is messing with my head, I tell Shannon nicely that I’m on a hormonal roller coaster, I hope he can bear with me, and I apologize in advance should I become a bitch. If I’m scared about an upcoming test and don’t want to talk about it, I don’t just go silent. I tell him nicely that I’m scared and it is easier for me not to talk about it.
4. Listen to them
Find lulls when medical, administrative, and household chaos is not erupting and ask your caregiver how they are doing. Maybe they don’t want to burden you and feel more comfortable unloading with a friend, but at least give them the opportunity. (Warning: only initiate this kind of conversation if you feel secure, objective, and free of cancer patient guilt, otherwise you are opening Pandora’s box.)
5. Squeeze two fingers
Did you know that it is less bone crushing to squeeze someone’s pointer and middle fingers together instead of squeezing their whole hand? Think about that next time you grasp for your caregiver’s hand during an IV stick.
Do you believe that patients can be supportive of caregivers? What are some stories you’ve had about what works or doesn’t work in the patient-caregiver relationship? What other tips would you add to this list?