Caregiving Isn't for Sissies ... and Other Conventional Truths

By Marilynn Preston

September 4, 2012 6 min read

Care for the elderly can be so challenging. You want to be kind, you want to make them comfortable, you might even want to give them five minutes of prime time at the Republican Convention to say nice things about the Mitt Romney nomination — and then great-grandpa Harry pulls down his pants on the bus and, everything goes to hell.

The convention organizers gave 82-year-old Clint Eastwood five minutes to speak; he took 12. They wanted him to be scripted and use a teleprompter; he refused both. He tricked them with his last-minute request for an empty chair on stage and then proceeded to get very naughty and shock the audience with his tasteless and pathetic "go f—k yourself" joke. Twice.

And what was the Republican response? Deep listening. Benign acceptance. Unconditional love. Who said compassionate conservatism is dead? This is exactly what you need for dealing with upsetting senior moments, according to Walter St. John, author of "Solace" (Bull Publishing), a thoughtful new book of advice for the millions of people who are caregivers for the elderly and the chronically ill.

"Let the person speak," says St. John, a retired professor of interpersonal communications. Even if what they are saying is entirely inappropriate and makes you feel uncomfortable, don't give in to "the urge to squelch the discussion or rapidly change the subject. ... It's very important to listen unselfishly and avoid responding with, for example, 'Let's not get into that right now ...' The best course of action is to listen as objectively as possible, with an open mind and an encouraging attitude."

I've been a caregiver and still am. This is excellent advice, because tending to the needs of an aging or chronically ill loved one is a minefield of stress and strain. If you want to avoid tension, awkwardness and burnout, you need a strategy that includes practical tips, tactics and key words to say. Here, then, are a few more guidelines from the gospel of St. John:

KNOW WHEN (AND HOW) TO SAY, "I DON'T KNOW." What if the person you're caring for asks you about the afterlife or the unpleasant side effects of a medication? Learn to be noncommittal without seeming evasive, he says. You don't want your loved one to think you don't care, but you also don't want to feel pressured to say something you don't want to say. You can always respond with a simple, "I don't know," or another suggestion in the book: "Wow, that's the $64,000 question, isn't it? I need a little time to digest this."

DON'T HESITATE TO CALL IN SPIRITUAL HELP. It's natural to experience spiritual anxiety during a serious illness, St. John says. As in, "Why did God let this happen to me?" You can be a confidante, a support, but when it comes to a more thorough exploration of spiritual needs, St. John suggests you "call in a rabbi, priest or other spiritual advisor. ... Some patients may be just as grateful for caregivers who are concerned about spiritual welfare, too." If you end up praying for or with your loved one, he says, "ask if there's anything specific he would like you to address."

LET THE TEARS FLOW. Chronic illness and end-of-life matters will bring tears. Instead of whipping out a tissue and saying something along the lines of, "It's OK; don't cry," St. John suggests you let the floodgates open. Tears are a natural emotional release and can be very therapeutic. "The best thing you can do for someone who is crying is simply be present and listen if the person wants to speak." Amen to that.

DON'T OFFER FALSE HOPE. Resist the urge to sugarcoat reality. Don't say things like, "I'm sure you'll get well soon." People usually know when they are seriously ill and soon to die. If you fill the silence with empty platitudes, you can destroy your credibility and make your loved one feel you can't handle the stress of supporting her, St. John says.

RESPOND CONSTRUCTIVELY TO ANGER. Anger is a natural response to aging and to deteriorating health, St. John reminds us. While you can't control your loved one's anger, you can control your own response. Make every effort to remain cool and collected.

But don't invite him to be a keynoter in 2016.


"Above all, seek to connect heart to heart." — Walter St. John

Marilynn Preston — fitness expert, well-being coach and speaker on healthy lifestyle issues — is the creator of Energy Express, the longest-running syndicated fitness column in the country. She has a website, and welcomes reader questions, which can be sent to [email protected] To find out more about Preston and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at

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