By: Deborah Shouse
Simple ways to reach out to a caregiver who may be experiencing loneliness
When my mom was diagnosed with dementia several years ago, I didn’t know anyone else who was going through this journey. I felt very alone, even though I had a beautiful network of friends. I turned to writing to help me make sense of the situation. Eventually, I gathered the courage to share my personal essays with others, often through simply reading my stories aloud to friends and family.
Sharing my thoughts and feelings on this deeply meaningful dementia experience was so therapeutic that it inspired me to reach out to other caregivers to see what helped them along their journeys. Through my years as a family caregiver and through interviewing dozens of caregivers and experts in the field of dementia, I learned how to reach out to others and reduce the feelings of loneliness commonly associated with caregiving.
Here are a few ideas on how you can reach out to caregivers you know:
When my friend Karen asked me to tell her more about my mom’s life, I was thrilled. I had been so immersed in my caregiving responsibilities that I had forgotten Mom’s fascinating adventures as a nurse in WWII, her worldwide travels, and more. Simply asking questions about the person who is living with dementia and listening avidly to stories about them is a gift to the caregiver.
“Your mother is so interesting,” my friend Jane said. Jane had offered to simply come to my house and have a short visit with me and Mom. My mother was going through a period of repetition and I had heard her tale of the natural hot springs in Iceland at least 113 times. But watching Jane lean forward, ask cogent questions and smile at Mom allowed me to appreciate Mom’s stories in a new way. These were cornerstones in my mother’s life and Jane’s interest reminded me what treasures they were.
Mom had been a vibrant movie-goer, an avid opera lover and an ardent museum enthusiast. When she could no longer go out, I loved it when people offered to bring arts, culture, and the occasional dog, to us. Studies show that even indirect contact with animals reduces stress. Visits from small dogs and cuddly babies boosted both our spirits and helped us feel more connected within our community.
Bringing over an art book and gazing at favorite painters together brought out our creative spirit and served as a catalyst for open-ended conversation. Singing and playing music with others stirred up positive memories and filled us with happiness and joy.
Caregivers tend to forget the power of fresh air and exercise. They often forget the joy of sunshine and trees. When they don’t have the steam to set out on their own, offering to take them on a stroll or run, go to a yoga class, or just sit on a bench in a park can offer moments of connection and renewal.
“What can I do for you?” my life-partner often asked. Frequently, I was so overwhelmed I had no answer. So he asked me concrete questions. “Do you need any errands run?” “Would you like me to make dinner?” “Are there phone calls I can help you make? Grocery shopping I can do?” Offering to take over menial tasks of my dementia caregiving responsibilities helped me understand I did not have to soldier through this alone. Help was all around me and one of my journeys was learning how to receive it.
It’s not always easy to stay connected with friends who are living with dementia and their caregivers but it is so worth it. Even when my mother felt lost at social gatherings, she still enjoyed the energy of being around empathetic friends. Even when she didn’t understand every word of the conversation, she relished being around others and meeting new people. So did my father and so did I. Having friends reach out with invitations reminded us we were still part of our community.
Sometimes we don’t know what to say to our friends who are caregivers for those living with dementia. We don’t know what to do to help them. This is when it’s time to simply state the truth and tell them, “I want to be there for you and understand what you’re going through. I want to support you and I don’t quite know how to do it. Can you guide me?”
Chances are the answer will be a warm hug and a resounding, “Yes.”