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How to Handle Criticism While Caregiving

Well-meaning advisers try to help but some can cause hurt

"You know she's depressed. Take her to a bereavement support group," one of my 84-year-old mother's longtime friends recently advised me about her.

"Try to stay out of her life as much as possible," another counseled, a few months earlier.

"She should be in an assisted living facility," a third insisted before that.

I hadn't asked any of them for advice, only occasional support and company for my mother. But their notion of being helpful was to tell me how I should be a better son and caregiver and change what I was doing.

In each instance I responded as courteously as I could, though I probably showed less enthusiasm for their ideas than they might have desired. Inside, though, I chafed. The suggestions were not wrongheaded in and of themselves, even though they were at cross-purposes with one another. I also knew that these friends were offering advice because they genuinely care about my mother and me. But — call me sensitive — it felt like they were finding fault with my years of concerted caregiving. That didn't help; it made me feel criticized and hurt.

Dealing With Unsolicited Advice

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Tips for dealing with unsolicited advice when caregiving

I've talked with many caregivers who have similar experiences. They are peppered with ideas from friends who implore them to seek different doctors and treatments, set different limits with care recipients, and secure different amounts of time (sometimes more, sometimes less) for self-care.

Extended family members not directly involved in the day-to-day caregiving work are notorious for being free with such unsolicited advice. It is as if by dint of their own blood relationships with the care recipient and perhaps guilt that they aren't providing more hands-on help, they feel they have the right and responsibility to direct operations from afar. The primary caregiver is left in the position of having to graciously accept the facile and occasionally impractical suggestions or stand accused of trying to be a hero and rejecting others' assistance.

It's clear that most caregivers need the support and concern of friends and family members. But if they become offended, then they may cut themselves off from that potential assistance. Here are ways to handle unsolicited advice and remain connected to the well-meaning sources of it.

Take it from whence it comes

Caregivers would be well-advised (there's that word again) to not just react to the message being given but to consider the background and intentions of the messenger. Advisers often have a sincere desire to help, because they truly are caring and invested. They just don't have enough information and understanding to know how to actually be helpful. They are also unaware that their good ideas may come across as critical. If you express appreciation for their caring, they will usually feel satisfied that they are making a difference and stop pressing specific recommendations.

Some people, though, use pieces of advice as thinly veiled barbs. Out of competitiveness or their own misery, they consciously or unconsciously mean to take caregivers down a peg. They should be kept at arm's length. It is seldom worth debating them or giving them the satisfaction of having caused hurt.

Deputize the advisers

Part of what rankles about receiving unsolicited advice is that it seems the giver would rather tell you what to do than roll up his or her sleeves and pitch in. You can encourage the adviser to be more active and useful by first noting his or her concern and then making particular requests: "I'm so pleased that you care enough about my mother to offer these ideas. There are specific tasks with which she could use help. Are you interested in hearing about them?"

This is especially true for family members living farther away who don't perceive any effective roles they can play other than chiming in with advice. If you define roles for them that matter (e.g., paying bills, getting insurance information, sending money), then you and they will be much more grateful for their contributions.

Ask preemptively

Rather than bracing for unsolicited advice from the same friends and family members, caregivers can turn the tables by preemptively soliciting ideas and suggestions on a regular basis. As a magnanimous gesture, it will help advisers feel acknowledged and valued. They'll therefore be less apt to keep criticizing the caregiving plan just to have some say. But asking also may yield good ideas — ones that the caregivers, as the ultimate experts on the care recipients, judge to have real pertinence, merit and use.

Barry J. Jacobs, a clinical psychologist and family therapist, is a member of the AARP Caregiving Advisory Panel.

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