Your Greatest Caregiving Skill: You Know How


You know how to stay when it seems just easier to go. (Image via Wikipedia)

Last week, I presented my workshop, Healing the Family Rifts, for a group of social workers and family caregivers. During the presentation, the attendees shared their stories of rifts that leave them wounded. For the family caregivers in the audience, the wounds come because other family members just won’t help.

Abby, who cares for her mom and also cared for dad, shared her story during our introductions. She’s one of six siblings but the only adult child who helps. She couldn’t understand how her siblings could not help their mother, now in her 90s and suffering from dementia. “She has Alzheimer’s,” Abby said, “and she’s exceptional.”

I later asked Abby to share a little more about one of the siblings who doesn’t help. Abby told the audience about her younger sister, who told Abby, “I want to keep my life as it is. Helping Mom will complicate it.” So, Abby’s youngest sister travels regularly to wonderful places like Dubai. Her sister gives to herself. Abby gives to their mother.

As Abby shared about her sister, members of the audience chimed in with their thoughts. “She must just not know how,” someone suggested.

And, then Abby shared more of the story: When their father was dying, Abby said it was really hard. She told her sister just how hard it was.

Ah, I said. It’s hard to be there and yet you still did it.

It’s hard for your sister, I added. And, she can’t figure out a way to be there. Just think how hard it is to know that and even harder it must be to admit it to someone who knows how.

So, she travels. Really, she runs.

When family caregivers share stories of siblings who can’t, I think of an email I received several years ago. A sister, caring for her mother, wrote to me about her brother. He stopped by like clockwork at the same time on the same day every week to see his sister and mother, who resided in an upstairs bedroom in his sister’s house. When the brother made his visit, he stood in the hallway of this sister’s house, never going further into the home, never actually seeing his mother.

This made his sister crazy. What is wrong with him, she said, that he can’t come and visit with me and sit with his mother?

I wrote her back with this suggestion: The next time your brother arrives, give him a hug and tell him, “I’m so glad you are here.” Then, take his hand and walk him up the stairs and into your mom’s room. Sit with him as he sits with your mom. Talk to your mom and help him do the same. He wants to be there for both of you. He just doesn’t know how.

Rosyln Carter speaks of four kinds of people in the world: Those who have been caregivers, those who are currently caregivers, those who will be caregivers and those who will need caregivers.

I wonder, though, if it’s more like two kinds of people: Those who know how and those who need us to show them how.

You know how because you stay when you’d like to run. You stay when you think, “This is so awful. I’m not sure I can do this.” You get up every day to begin again, to face the difficulties that come with life’s hard time.

And, interestingly enough, you show them how by doing what you do every day. Just doing it. And, once in awhile you can show them by telling them, “I understand that this is hard. I have a days when I doubt myself. I have moments when I question whether or not I’m doing what’s right, what’s best. When it gets that hard, I talk it out, I take a moment to breath and I say a prayer.”

You show them how to manage those doubts and worries we all experience. When we know how to face our own demons, we know how to stay.

The presentation ended last week with thoughts on how to move past the anger, resentment and bitterness toward those family members who don’t help. Abby told us that she wants to heal, that she has packages to mail to siblings in hopes her bitterness will leave when the boxes begin their journey.

And, that reminds me of a story told to me last year by a former family caregiver ten years after her experience. Her siblings were minimally involved in helping her care for their mother. The family caregiver was with her mother as her mother died, an experience that still moves her when speaks about it. After her mom died, she called her siblings to let know them their mother had died and to describe her mother’s final moments. After hearing about these final moments, her sister said, “I should have been there.”

The family caregiver lives in peace knowing she was there. The sister lives with regrets knowing she should have been there.

We could judge those who don’t know how. And, sometimes, the judging does feel good. In the end, though, we don’t have to  judge. Because those who don’t know how will be their own toughest judges. Think of Abby’s sister. When her mother dies, will she view her trips to those exotic places with fondness? Or, will they be viewed with shame? Because the plane she took never took her to where she really wanted to be—with her mom. She just didn’t know how to get on the right plane. Abby will be able to live with herself when caregiving is over. How will her sister?

I spoke with Abby after the presentation. She was on her way to mail her gifts. Because she knows how. Just like you.

Update: We’ll continue the conversation about staying during hard times on Sunday (March 18) during our #carechat on Twitter which begins at 8 p.m. ET. And, we’ll also talk about staying on our live call-in show, which airs Tuesday, March 20, at 7:30 p.m. ET. First caller to share his or her answer to this question, How do you stay when the days get hard?, will win.


  • You can enjoy Healing the Family Rifts, the webinar, here.
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About Denise Brown

I began working with family caregivers in 1990 and launched in 1996 to help and support them. Through my blog, I share words of comfort and offer coping strategies and tips. I also write opinion pieces about recent research, community programs and media coverage of caregiving issues. I've written several caregiving books, including "The Caregiving Years, Six Stages to a Meaningful Journey," "Take Comfort, Reflections of Hope for Caregivers" and "After Caregiving Ends, A Guide to Beginning Again." You can purchase my books and schedule a coaching call with me in our store.

7 thoughts on “Your Greatest Caregiving Skill: You Know How

  1. Trish

    Denise, This is positively profound and inspirational. What a wonderful workshop this must have been. It sounds like you made quite an impact – sending your positive ripples out into the world. I can’t thank you enough for doing what you do.

  2. G-J

    Denise, this is wonderful and a helpful reminder of why we do what we do.

    Last time we went to our support group the social worker said that her book club had just met and discussed “Still Alice”. Spoiler Alert! The members of the group were upset that Alice’s husband left and took a job he was offered and thought he was terrible for doing that. The social worker told her book club that she knows a dozen people, the members of our group, who have not left, but are loving, caring for, and supporting their spouses despite the challenges.

    It’s just like everyone here. We’re all sticking it out and doing our best even on the toughest days. Although I wish the circumstances were different, I feel honored to be part of this incredible group of people.

  3. Avatar of TomTom

    Wow. Thanks.
    I would love to attend one of these workshops.

    We know how. But how do we know? Because we stayed and figured it out as we went along. We didn’t really know when it started. But because we stayed, we learned. I remember feeling physically struck by waves of Patience. I felt it that strongly. Patience. It washed over me, and let me see everything in a more relaxed way. We stay, we accept what is, we learn, we grow. Someone who hasn’t done that may think they cannot. No one can go from begginer to master overnight. It starts with staying. Everything begins there. I thought I knew a lot, and then I came here and saw how much more I can learn, how much more my fellow caregivers have learned. You inspire me.

  4. Avatar of Bette

    Hi Denise,
    Thank you so much for sharing this story. We just never know all that is entailed in our caregiving – or, all that is entailed for others around us.

    Thank you for the reminder that I need to just trust…and know.

    It takes such strength to do that – I’m grateful for the strength I receive here, everyday.

  5. Avatar of ejourneysejourneys

    Tom’s comment really resonates with me. Learning self-trust is so important, even and especially when surrounded by “experts.” We have almost no communication with my partner’s family and none with any of my relatives. Even some of the so-called “experts” have questioned why I stay. (I wonder: Would they have asked me that question if I were blood kin or a “legal” spouse?)

    I do what I do and muddle through, warts and all, because I can’t not do what I do. For years I was a caregiver without knowing that was what it was.


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