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How to Help a Friend Who's Caring for an Aging Parent

12/07/2013 11:40 EST | Updated 02/06/2014 05:59 EST

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Being a family caregiver, caring for an aging parent, is a tough assignment. It is one that many baby boomers are just beginning to encounter.

One does not usually go into this role as prepared as one would like to be, or hoped to be. Situations often change with little warning. One moment mom and dad are aging nicely, the next moment a stroke, fall, or death of one of the parents changes everything. The quality of life of both the aging boomer and the surviving parent are gravely altered.

Despite the degree of love you have for your parents and the degree of familial responsibility you are willing to assume, caring for aging parents is an added stressor in most people's day to day living. Even when your immediate family and your place of work are supportive, there is still the feeling of not having enough time to meet all life's commitments well, or at all.

Many family caregivers feel they need to sacrifice time for relaxation. This is a mistake. Without time for relaxation we can become embittered, exhausted and sick ourselves.

If you have a close friend who has had to assume the role of caring for an aging parent you probably already know all of this. And you have probably asked yourself, "what can I do to help them out?"

Here are some suggestions for making a welcome difference in the lives of friends like these based on using your common sense with respect to your friend's needs and your own availability.

Be flexible and communicate this

Despite what plans you make with your friend, be flexible at all times. Be prepared for cancellations or the shortening up of an outing. Be sure to communicate this flexibility to them on an ongoing basis, with sincerity. Allow them to change dates and plans at the last minute. Never scold or show disappointment when this happens.

Drop by with meals and treats

Provide your friend and their family with a dinner or dessert you've made every now and then. Find out what they like and don't like. You can do this randomly, or if it makes more sense, set up a specific day for this. Drop by with surprise treats at random, popcorn for an evening movie, hot chocolate and marshmallows in the winter, a pitcher of lemonade in the summer, a plate of cookies any time.

Weed the garden, cut the grass, walk the dog

When you are looking after another you are bound to fall behind in your own housework. Offering to weed the garden, cut the grass, or walk the dog can be an enormous help.

Bring flowers from your garden

If you have some, share them.

Send greeting cards

These can be a mix of both funny and caring. Receiving a greeting card is a great reminder that you have close friends and a real pick-me-up when you feel your whole world is being consumed by caregiving responsibilities.

Celebrate small things

Take your friend out for a gourmet coffee and sweet to celebrate Ground Hog Day, four days without rain in April, the official start of summer, etc.

Keep outings short and frequent

It's more important to do things often with your friend than plan 'big' things that take up a great deal of time.

Plan outings close to home or in the home

Source out things to do that are close to home, involve little travel time and will let your friend return home or get to the parent's place quickly if needed. If you live in the country you can have a movie evening or afternoon, complete with popcorn at your place or theirs, plan an afternoon tea complete with finger sandwiches, get together for Christmas card writing or catch up on all the gossip by reading grocery store tabloids together.

Forget cell phone etiquette

When you are out having coffee or tea with a friend, insist they keep their phone on and in a place where they watch it for messages. Being encouraged to do this will put them at ease and make these outings more relaxed and 'doable'.

Listen and let them cry

A family caregiver experiences many moments and ongoing periods of frustration. Having someone who can listen to all of this, and accept the tears, without feeling they need to fix things or being overwhelmed by what they hear, is invaluable.

Don't give advice

It's best to offer advice only when this is asked for. Advice is often demeaning, stating nothing more than the obvious. Many family caregivers are 'trapped' in situations where the only solution is to endure.

Be prepared to disagree

Be aware that you may not always agree with your friend's caregiving approach or decisions. Within reason, and within the law, be prepared to go along with these, remembering you are not in their shoes and that they are doing their best.

Search online resources

When your friend is looking for information related to a specific caregiving issue, offer to do an online search for this. This can be an enormous time-saver. If they want to know how other 'baby boomers' cope with the challenges of caring for an aging parent, look for web sites that offer discussion forums for family caregivers. These can be beneficial on an ongoing basis and provide much needed knowledge as well as emotional support.

7 Tips For Caregivers