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A Failure to Communicate

“What we have here is a failure to communicate…” -Cool Hand Luke


Learning to communicate well is one of the most valuable assets a caregiver can develop and it isn’t necessarily something we’re born with. Whether you’re talking with family and friends or with people you work for or who are providing you with services, clearly delivering a message so that you can be heard and understood is going to make your life a lot easier.

In our caregiving journey, we’ve probably had people ask “How can I help?” We’re seldom ready with an answer for them and that frequently makes for missed opportunities. Sure, there are a lot of times someone will say “Feel free to call me if you need anything,” knowing fully well that it’s the rare carer that actually takes someone up on this kind of offer. It’s not unusual for a caregiver to have a hard time asking for or taking any kind of help. For some reason, we feel we need to be able to do it all when, of course, we can’t.

One of the most important lessons was the first step to speak up. If someone asked me “How are you? How do you feel?”, it was hard for me to come up with an answer on the spot. Usually, I’d just say “Fine. Fine,” but of course that was hardly the case. What I knew in the back of my mind was, I needed someone to really understand and care how I felt. I didn’t feel friends and family were going to “get it,” but I never even gave them the chance. I didn’t think they really wanted to hear what I had to say and I was more concerned with their comfort level than mine.

As a caregiver, I found the best counsel I got was from other caregivers who shared my problems. In my online support group, there were many wise souls with more experience than me—and some with less—but what they all seemed to have in common was valuable insight. I learned what to do and how to be heard from the pros—that being the people who were on my path, but just slightly ahead of me.

So how do you express yourself in a way that others can be there for you? My advice is to be prepared and be honest. If your neighbor asks you “Is there anything I can do to help?” you can be ready with “It would be great if you could pick up some groceries for me,” or “Yes! If you could pick the kids up from school today that would be great!” Know what you need and make the “ask” realistic. If you ask someone to cover for you for an hour while you go out to have some me time—that’s realistic. Honestly, when your friends see how easy it is to help you out, they’ll probably be ready to offer again.

With hospital workers, insurance companies and other firms that provide you with services you’re managing, it’s very easy to get frustrated. Our voices can become high pitched, loud and angry, making it difficult and/or unpleasant for the party causing this frustration to help you work things out. You don’t want to alienate the people you need. We’re often powder kegs of anger, and since we do our very best not to take it out on the person we’re caring for, it’s easy to “go off” on strangers. Easy but not advisable. I would spend days on the phone settling insurance claims that I knew could have been settled simply with one call—if a human being actually picked up the phone. Of course I was put on hold forever and eventually disconnected after forty minutes of waiting, but I’d have to pick up the phone and call again, remembering all the while that I needed to hold my temper in order to accomplish anything.

I’d always establish a good working relationship with nurses and hospital technicians, and that made them more likely to help me than someone who was nasty and unappreciative of the conditions they were working under. When I’d finally been pushed to the limit and had all I could stand, they’d know that something was truly amiss because I was ordinarily polite, even-tempered and as clear as possible.

Then, there are the people who are constantly giving you advice you didn’t ask for. Yes, they usually mean well, but well-intentioned information doesn’t make it valuable. Frequently this is no more than chatter from someone who genuinely feels for you and wishes to help but doesn’t know how. “My sister-in-law’s mother went through exactly what you are, and she did…” such and such for example. Other well-meaning individuals will tell you what doctor to see who is always “top in the field,” or tell you to inquire about such-and-such medication. Somehow, we have to hold it all together and be polite, even solicitous, in these instances.

Of course some of the very hardest conversations to have are the ones with immediate family members who are perfectly satisfied with the job you’re doing and see no reason to change how their loved one is being cared for. Of course we think “Well, what about me?” and tend to bottle up our feelings until we explode and end up arguing with the people who should be our closest allies. I know when I cared for my husband and mother-in-law, my brother-in-law lived in Texas and was under the impression that it was okay for him to visit for three days every four months. It irked me no end to have my mother-in-law fall all over him once he actually came to visit when it was her son and myself who were caring for her on a daily basis. At long last, my husband spoke to his brother and let him know that we needed to get away, and that he’d just have to clear his busy schedule to come and relieve us while we took what was probably the last vacation of our lives together.

The hardest part about that was that he wasn’t MY brother. I had to walk the path of least resistance and take it all on. That, and I could never get how I was feeling about the situation heard. Some of you may have these feelings with your siblings or even your grown children who’ve moved away and visiting isn’t convenient. Of course, one has to be careful having these conversations, but when our needs continually go unheard and unanswered by those we’re caring for and those we care for, we must be diligent and keep trying to find the way to ask and tell until we discover the language that they can hear—and understand.

Adrienne Gruberg

Adrienne Gruberg is a former family caregiver and founder of The Caregiver Space. After six years of caring for her late husband and mother-in-law she conceived of an online support space all caregivers could come to. Adrienne holds a BFA from Boston University. She founded AYA Creative in 1982, an award winning graphic design, marketing and advertising company. Her design training has helped shape the website and her personal and professional experience continues to inform and influence the caregiver centric support experience she has created at The Caregiver Space.

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