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Best Performance in a Supporting Role

By on July 10th, 2019

Many of us are not the primary person providing care to a relative or friend. We’re the daughter who lives in another city, the son who lives across town and travels a lot for business, or the sister who wants to help but has a family of her own. What’s the best role for us?

The most important type of assistance that any of us can provide is a listening ear with no judgment, no right answers. For most of us, our first inclination when we hear a problem, or that something isn’t going well, is to offer advice. If we pause and listen, it might be that the primary caregiver already knows what to do, she just needs to talk through the situation out loud. She needs to feel like she has done everything she can to reach the right answer. It could be that the primary caregiver isn’t even looking for an answer yet. It might be that the primary caregiver just wants to let off steam and vent. One of the most loving and helpful things we could ever do is to be that person who just listens—and listens. At a minimum, we might ask if they even want to know what we think.

Another big help is to be the supportive friend or relative. If the person with the lion’s share of responsibility for providing the care has reached a decision, we need to try to support them if we can. This is particularly true if we are the relative who lives out of town, and we don’t want our mom or dad to be loaded on a plane to come live with us. Yes, there may be a better way of providing care. Yes, we may believe we see the situation a bit more clearly from afar. But unless we are in the arena with them battling the forces of poor health, a complex social service system, a myriad of medical appointments and problem behaviors day after day, we need to express our support and cheer from the stands as the primary caregiver attempts to win the struggle. Standing in the arena doing battle is a very different perspective than watching the battle in the stands.

In all cases, it’s nice to offer what we do best. This might be sending checks to help pay for respite services or home-delivered meals. It could be providing rides to/from medical appointments, picking up prescriptions, or walking the dog. It could be calling every Saturday to see how things are going. We might not be able to care for someone who is bedridden, but we’re great at calling for takeout to be delivered at the end of a hectic day.

We don’t have to be the star of the show to play an important role in the life of a primary caregiver or the person for whom care is being provided. A supporting role that brings a smile to someone’s face, that says the right lines at the right time, or that seemingly shows up when the major characters are in a crisis can be rewarding and fulfilling. Some supporting actors have even gotten a star on the Walk of Fame. How would we like to earn our best performance in a supporting role?

WellMed Charitable Foundation Executive Director Carol Zernial is a noted gerontologist, radio show host, and emeritus Chair of the National Council on Aging. The non-profit WellMed Charitable Foundation focuses on complimentary programs impacting seniors and family caregivers, including weekly telephone learning sessions, evidence-based classes on stress reduction and more. Find out more at or toll-free at 1-866-390-6491.

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