“Who needs them?” my 62-year-old former client Sarah (not her real name) said dismissively when referring to her so-called friends. She had hoped her two best friends — women she’d known since high school — would respond to the distress she felt caring for her aging father with Parkinson’s disease and dementia by reaching out to her with calls, casseroles and offers of help. Instead, they’d practically disappeared. She felt crushed. “Who needs them?” she repeated, but this time with sadness, as if she were really saying, “I do.”
We expect true friends to show up and step up when we need them. But many caregivers report that their friends make vague avowals of support before backing off. Perhaps these friends are wrapped up in their own lives or want to avoid the sadness that often surrounds caregiving. The result is the same: They have failed a test of friendship, leaving the caregiver feeling betrayed and isolated.
How should caregivers like Sarah respond? Should they write off those friends, confront them, or act as cheerful and engaging as they always have, despite their friends’ apparent lack of compassion? And after caregiving ends, should they forgive those friends?
Here are some ideas:
Communicate in frank, concrete terms. Keep your friends well informed of your changing caregiving circumstances and needs for support through group emails or social media posts. Then reach out to specific friends with particular asks for which they are well suited. This direct approach entails taking the risk that they will say no and possibly hurt your feelings. But maybe in this instance they’re busy, and will offer to help another time or in another way. If not, it’s better to know sooner rather than later whom you can depend upon to provide which kind of help.
Be realistic about what others can and will do. Ask for small favors — for example, picking up a loaf of bread when they are already going to the supermarket. A little help goes a long way when you’re overwhelmed with caregiving duties. They may later offer to do more when they see how much you appreciate their assistance.
Express appreciation, and be honest about your needs. Tell your friends how much it means to you when they do come through. Also tell them gently but truthfully how it hurts you when they don’t. If you don’t express yourself, they won’t know how important their actions are to you.
Accept what you can’t change, and move on. Some friends will respond well to direct asks. Others won’t. As many caregivers have said to me over the years, it is surprising to see which lifelong friends fail to step up and which mere acquaintances surpass all optimistic wishes. Strengthen your bonds with those who come through.
Grieve the loss. It’s easy to stay angry at the friends who disappear. But anger is just a cover for the sadness you may feel for the lost friendship. Allowing yourself to feel and express sadness is a surer way to eventually get past the disappointment.
Reward real remorse with forgiveness. We all make mistakes. If friends eventually come to you with heartfelt apologies for having let you down, consider taking the high road, and give them another chance. True friendship is worth repairing.
Barry J. Jacobs, a clinical psychologist, family therapist and healthcare consultant, is the co-author of Love and Meaning After 50: The 10 Challenges to Great Relationships — and How to Overcome Them and AARP Meditations for Caregivers (Da Capo, 2016). Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.