I have recently experienced being the primary caregiver of a post-op patient following my husband’s major back surgery. Even though it was only a glimpse of what a long-term primary caregiver goes through, it did open my eyes to the needs of caregivers.

I had an introduction to the life of a family caregiver when my mother went from her home to assisted living and, finally, to a nursing home. Family members caring for post-op patients, elderly or those with terminal conditions, have special needs themselves. Many people would like to help, but don’t know what to do. These are some suggestions from my recent experiences.

I just returned from spending two weeks with my daughter and her husband as my first grandchild was born. It’s been a long time since I have been around a newborn. Helping out the new parents is always unique to the specific family. Apparently, the rules have changed on how best to aid a family of a newborn. The most recent advice is that it is advantageous to the new family unit to be alone in the house for the first two to three weeks to allow the new family time to find its way on its own. That does not mean family cannot be available to provide food, housekeeping duties or babysitting during that time, but when and how should be decided by the new parents. Abiding by that rule, I was able to give them the space they need without overextending my stay.

I discovered some things that may be helpful to those wanting to give support to primary caregivers. First, let the caregiver know that you genuinely want to be of assistance. But before deciding what that will be, ask what would be helpful at this time. What we may think is a good idea may not be what the caregiver most desires at the moment. I do know that they yearn for someone to understand their plight and offer emotional support.

For a post-op patient, you may want to ask if a visit is appropriate at this time. When you have that conversation, the caregiver would be well- advised to predetermine the length of the visit by saying something like “The patient would love a short visit,” thereby setting expectations so as not to overtire the patient. There were times when my husband was too uncomfortable to have people around him. So visits from well-wishers were not encouraged. With my daughter‘s birthing experience, she had a lot of friends wanting to visit. Too many visitors takes away precious time with the newborn and may overtax the new parents. Asking if it is convenient to stop by is always the best way to address this situation.

Caregivers, who will be in this position for a long period of time, need time off for self-care. It doesn’t have to mean you will be left alone with the one needing the care. The caregiver would benefit by being free to do housework, take a nap, read for pleasure, or just have some uninterrupted time alone. Once you let the caregiver know you are available to give him or her time off, ask when it is most convenient for them. Long-term caregivers tend to serve the patient at the expense of taking care of themselves and, thus, lose their identity during this caregiving time. It is important to let caregivers know they need to take care of themselves and remind them it is not selfish nor should they feel guilty for wanting time off for self-care.

Providing meals for the family that is dealing with a long-term situation is a good idea and usually an easy way to provide assistance. We were the recipient of such thoughtfulness from a variety of people. Again, do ask for the appropriate time for such a gift and if there are any allergies to any certain food or restrictions on the patient’s diet.

Spending time with the patient allows the caregiver time off to run errands, go to the gym, buy groceries or to just leave the house knowing their loved one is well cared for.

Full-time caregivers in families have an immense responsibility that they fulfill with grace. Most could benefit from your support, especially in reminding and facilitating self-care.

I hope I have suggested practical ways to render aid and encouragement. Each situation is unique; thus, it is appropriate to ask “How can I best help you?”

Next week: Jim Rixner

Linda Holub, of Dakota Dunes, S.D., has lived in the Sioux City metro area for more than 40 years. She and her husband, Dave, have four adult children. A certified life coach professional with a master of arts degree from Liberty University in Human Services, Counseling: Life Coaching, Holub is co-chair of the Siouxland Coalition Against Human Trafficking.