How to Spot a Family Caregiver


How to Spot a Family Caregiver

Recently, someone I don't know very well but who is familiar with my caregiving story, said to me that my dad "looks fantastic. He looks healthy and strong. Same with your mom." Her implied message was that my parents don't look sick enough to need help. Because they don't look sick enough, they must not need my help.

My colleague's comment came after a longer discussion about caregiving. This colleague keeps insisting to me that family caregivers must look like family caregivers by having a caree who looks really sick. To her, you look like a family caregiver when you are pushing a wheelchair. Exasperated, I finally sent an email that read:

“But they don’t look sick” is a common comment many family caregivers hear — and it’s also one of our greatest frustrations. I often think how the family caregiver looks tells the story of caregiving much better than how the caree looks.

In other words, my 88-year-old father who doesn't have a bladder, kidney, ureter or prostate and my 83-year-old mother who doesn't have a third of her stomach look good because I'm killing myself to help them look good.

The conversation with my colleague led me to wonder, What does a family caregiver look like? Let's compile a list of how to spot a family caregiver. Here goes:

  1. When you see someone with a laser focus, you see a family caregiver. We know what's important and lose sight of anything that isn't.

  2. When you hear laughter, you see a family caregiver. The sense of humor of a family caregiver is glorious. Because we have cried so much, we revel when we can laugh.

  3. When you see kindness, you see a family caregiver. The kindness of a family caregiver is legendary. We hold doors, smile at strangers and give thanks regularly. We know how much a kind gesture or look can mean.

  4. When you receive wisdom, you connect with a family caregiver. Because we often live with death, we understand the secret of life.

  5. When you see efficiency, you see a family caregiver. We have limited resources (money, energy, time) so have mastered how to do a lot with a little.

  6. When you experience compassion, you experience a family caregiver. We know what loss and pain feel like which means we know how to offer comfort and that powerful gentle touch.

  7. When you can enjoy the gift of quiet company, you connect with a family caregiver. We don't waste words or fill silence with silliness.

  8. When you watch someone manage life's little inconveniences with a shrug, you watch a family caregiver. We deal with significant, challenging problems every day. We don't waste our energy on the insignificant ones.

  9. When you experience patience, you meet a family caregiver. Even though we chide ourselves for not having enough patience, we have learned so much about keeping patience. We know more than anyone else how to be patient.

  10. When you see someone hurrying through the store, you see a family caregiver. We're running through our errands because we must run back to caregiving.

  11. When you see someone carry an enormous load, you see a family caregiver. We carry what you can see and also what you can't. We carry it every day, often times in the middle of the night and during every holiday.

  12. When you receive thoughtfulness, you connect with a family caregiver. We've been on the end of thoughtlessness so choose instead to be the one who sends the thank-you note, expresses compliments and offers encouragement.

What would you add to my list?

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Thanks, Denise, for this brilliant insight. It resonates with me at every level, especially the part, \"I’m killing myself to help them look good.\" There is so much focus on how the caree looks, especially if you're discussing dementia or other mental conditions. The only way the public understands it, is if the caree looks disheveled, as portrayed in the movie, \"Alice\"; as the main character continued to deteriorate, she of course, got wilder and mangy-er looking. \r\nMy mother never looked mangy, because I knocked myself out to the end making sure she did not. I've looked in the mirror for four years wondering why I look so much older than my sister, who is my elder. Now it makes so much sense; she never provided the caregiving I did. \r\nThank you for really SEEING US, and helping us to see ourselves. We ARE ENOUGH.


When you see someone speak with a sparkle in their eye, you know it is a family caregiver...remembering who the caree was, and still loving them for who they are now.

Theresa Wilbanks

This is so true. I get the same comments_mysql about my dad who at 97 is doing well both physically and mentally. He is also very sweet and the challenges involved with caring for him appear minimal to anyone who has not been in this role. I'll add that when you experience empathy, you meet a family caregiver. They understand that what is visible on the surface or put out there on social media is not necessarily what is going on behind the scenes. Their comment or sometimes just an empathetic expression tells you that you and your reality are actually seen.