Close Connections: Caregivers – When to help, when not to?

NancyNormannewmugwebBy Nancy Norman

We hear about and see the heroic efforts of so many people taking care of their parent or someone in need.

Do we forget we’re all caregivers in some way and we all face the challenge of when to help and how much?

We’re all caretakers of ourselves – paying attention to what we need, how to make ends meet, how to spend our time. Figuring out when to ask for help and when to go it alone isn’t easy. It’s a caretaking challenge.

There are professional caregivers. Those folks who earn their living taking care of the everyday needs of others. They do it all, from bathroom duty to entertainment. They have to learn with each person how much to help and when to encourage more self-sufficiency.

There are temporary caretakers. When one of a couple or a personal friend has surgery or suffers an injury which slows them down, someone else becomes the rock. He or she takes on a different role. More shopping, more cooking, more driving, more physical duties to help the other recoup. And the challenge remains: when to help, how much and when not to?

Some people spend years as caregivers as their parent or partner slowly deteriorates with dementia or other chronic diseases. They see the one they knew turn into a different person, and yet they, the caregivers, have to remain devoted to this “new” person and learn what help is needed and how much.

One of the hardest balances for all caregivers is how much to do for the recipient and how much to encourage them to do it themselves. Promoting independence along the way, no matter the circumstance, tends to help people feel stronger. We humans seem to absorb gifts from others every chance we get, particularly when we’re vulnerable from injury or disease or mental handicaps. If we as caregivers try to do every request, our “patient” will tend to become less self-sufficient and maybe less confident that they can face whatever they’re dealing with.

I have no answers for this, but a few ideas. We can think about how to respond so we don’t help automatically or because it’s our job. Sometimes we have an intuition that the cared for person is playing for sympathy and more help when they can do whatever it is themselves. But what if they can do it themselves and having you do it reinforces their feeling loved? Complicated. So do we do it, or wait to see if we can understand the motivation behind the request?

Maybe we can ask the person we’re caretaking to show us the way. Instead of responding to the request or saying, “Can you do this?,” we might say, “Help me see what you need.” If they can do it, keep asking for instruction. And watch how they do from there.

The more we as caretakers can keep from assuming a dominant role with those we care for, the better. Not knowing every answer. Not fulfilling every need. But working together with. Help others help themselves where possible. The most empowering relationships are mutual.

Nancy Norman is a licensed clinical social worker, musician with The Storys duo and former “Intimacy” columnist for “The Wichita Eagle.” Email her at


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