Helping Your Caregiver To Do Their Best

Develop a range of strategies so the care receiver feels supported, not challenged

by Barry J. Jacobs, AARP, January 2, 2019 

Home caregiver comforting senior man sitting at kitchen table

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During my caregiving years, my mother and I had many tense moments about rousing her from bed to get ready for medical appointments. I’d pop into her bedroom and wake her, then remind her a few minutes later that she really needed to get up, then cajole her, plead with her, and ultimately use my sternest, I-mean-business tone. I thought I was helping motivate her in those instances. She’d say she felt like I was bullying her.

I never liked being called a bully and denied it was so. After all, we were always in a rush. If I pressured her, I reasoned, then it was for her own good. But in retrospect now, 20 months after her death, I wonder if I was in the right. What really mattered to her during those times? Was she clinging to the comfort of her pillow because she was still tired or even depressed? Was it more important for her to have control over her own life and sleep in than submit to another routine exam with a doctor who couldn’t help her much anyway? Instead, I overruled her and expected her to “obey” me. 

I don’t think I’m the only family caregiver to transgress the blurry line between supportive guidance and arm-twisting. Sometimes when tired or frustrated or impatient — or when there really is a situation of dire urgency — many caregivers are prone to pressure care receivers too hard to conform to schedules and regimens. We rationalize the approach we’ve taken on the basis of practicality and expedience. But many of us second-guess ourselves later about whether it was necessary.


AARP Care Guide: Help for common caregiving conflicts


Certain things do have to get done. Otherwise, family caregivers might feel that they are guilty of irresponsibility and neglect. But how can we manage to be coaches, not bosses, and effective motivators, not feared bullies? Here are some ideas.

Rarely put tasks over the relationship: There are few caregiving tasks so crucial that they warrant trampling a care receiver’s feelings in the process of accomplishing them. Rather, there are what I think of as front- and back-burner issues. On the front burner are mostly issues having to do with safety, such as taking medications appropriately or driving capably, for which the caregiver should be firm and persuasive. However, most other issues are on the back burner of importance and need for action. For these items, caregivers should allow care receivers to exercise as much choice as possible and shift plans accordingly. That means being more flexible and accommodating, as well as respectful. In retrospect I could have scheduled my mother’s doctor’s appointments later in the day, even if it was less convenient for me, or canceled them altogether.

Develop a range of approaches and strategies: Great coaches are attuned to the moods of their players and apply the right touches at the right time to encourage maximum effort and performance. Great caregivers, too, can sense what care receivers are feeling at a given moment and tailor their requests — for instance, appealing to reason, resorting to silly humor or changing the subject entirely — to the approach that will motivate.  In general, I found that a gentler style was more apt to work with my mother, but there were also times that she wouldn’t agree with me at all. That’s when I would turn to my wife, who, with a smile and an even softer tone, could somehow win my mother’s cooperation making the same request she’d already rejected from me.

Solicit and heed feedback: We can sometimes get so wrapped up in the hectic pace of caregiving life that we lose a sense of how we are coming across to others. But we can listen to feedback from family members about how we are conducting ourselves. Take a moment to say to the care receiver, “We are having to work together more closely nowadays than we ever have before. Am I treating you the way you want to be treated?” Regard the answer seriously.

Beware of creeping bullying: No caregiver sets out to be the sort who pushes others around. But if he finds that applying pressure to the care receiver is the most efficient way of completing his many tasks, then he may slowly tend toward using sheer force. Caregiving isn’t about efficiency, however; it’s about caring. And nothing could be less caring than bending people to one’s will. We need to be aware of the excesses of our own styles and never convince ourselves that the ends justify the means.

Barry J. Jacobs, a clinical psychologist, family therapist and healthcare consultant, is the co-author of the book AARP Meditations for Caregivers (Da Capo, 2016). Follow him on Twitter @drbarryjacobs and on Facebook.

More Caregiving Advice

Getting Paid To Care For Elderly Family Members

You can be paid for your work and treated fairly

by Barry J. Jacobs, AARP, January 30, 2019 |

Son explaining medicine dosage to his elderly mother

GETTY IMAGES

Does money change everything, as the old saying goes? If Alicia had won the lottery, then she might understand why her siblings were now treating her a little differently. But all she’d done was become certified as a home health aide so she could receive a modest hourly wage from her county for dressing, grooming and feeding her Parkinson’s disease-stricken mom. Nowadays, however, her sisters seemed less interested in pitching in with caregiving tasks since family caregiving had officially become her “job.” Even her mother seemed to be asking more of her, as if she were now the hired help and not her youngest daughter.

More states are allowing care recipients to hire and pay family members as their home health aides under what is sometimes called consumer-directed care. These are popular programs for obvious reasons: Family members — some of whom had to quit or cut back on work to take care of a loved one — are now being paid at least a little money for all the care they provide. No one is getting rich, but at least they are better able to cover some bills. More importantly, receiving an hourly wage gives them a feeling of being publicly acknowledged and valued rather than (as is too often the case) feeling invisible and underappreciated.

In my clinical practice, I’ve also worked with many families in which a parent’s decision to leave a house or the bulk of an inheritance to the primary caregiver roils family dynamics like nothing else. The caregiver who will receive money becomes immediately suspected by others of playing the Altruistic Child to cash in. Anger and conflict frequently result.


Caregiver’s guide for dealing with common caregiving conflicts


How can family caregivers earn some compensation for their devoted efforts but not be regarded as mercenaries by other family members? Here are some ideas:

Demonstrate transparency: Many of us are inclined to keep our financial affairs private, even when among family members. But because caregiving is inherently a family enterprise, it is vital that we are aboveboard about monetary transactions, especially if we are profiting in some way from a parent’s need for assistance. Let other family members know about the opportunity to earn an hourly wage for providing hands-on care. Tell them exactly what you’ll make. Communicate plainly that this money is going to offset costs incurred by caregiving activities — e.g., expenses for medication copays, lost salary, the price of fuel for driving to the doctor.

Keep in mind what others think is fair: It may seem fair to you to receive money for the many sacrifices you are making on behalf of someone you love. (I agree with you.) But there are other family members who may believe they are also making sacrifices — though, admittedly, not as many as you are — and deserve to be compensated to some degree as well. For them, it may seem patently unfair that you get glory and money and they get neither. Don’t begrudge or disagree with their feelings. Empathize with them instead and tell them that you greatly value their participation in caregiving. You don’t have to fork over some of your newly earned cash to prove that. Just express your appreciation that the two of you are part of a cohesive caregiving team whose sole mission is to help Mom.

Preserve your parent-child relationship: Care recipients can become increasingly demanding over time even when money is not involved. But when a family member has been hired for a caregiving job, there is a greater tendency for the care recipient to treat even close relatives with impatience and barked orders. Even when you’re on duty, though, you’re not just an employee. Complete the necessary tasks but let your parent know that you’re there for love, not money, and that you expect that your personal rapport with one another is not going to be suddenly altered by changed economics.

Weigh the money’s worth: For some families, receiving a caregiving salary will be an unmitigated boon about which everyone is thrilled. For others, there will be no end to the resentment, jealousy and sniping. Judge for yourself whether working as a loved one’s home health aide is worth it. If it isn’t, then don’t be resentful in kind. Instead, be consoled that peace in the family may ultimately be of greater value than any amount of money in the pocket.

More on Caregiving Compensation