Applied Caregiving


November 9, 2009 by David Gillaspie



What is the common response when asked “How are you?” Most agree that, “Fine.  How are you,” is a polite answer.  Except when you ask a caregiver.  In fact, if you know someone is a caregiver you might not want to ask how they are.

It’s not about them anymore.

“How are you,” doesn’t ask for a fifteen minute breakdown on the latest drug research for a loved one’s disease.  If you ask a caregiver, be prepared to listen. 

Try another question like “How’s it going?” 

From a caregiving perspective, it’s going down.  Ask that one and be ready to deal with the slow progression of disease.  That’s how it’s going.

“What’s up?”


A caregiver might answer this with a list of problems that drive their blood pressure up.  If anyone has a right to hyper-tension, it’s a caregiver.  If you ask ‘what’s up’ you might need something to calm you down afterward.

Anyone who’s worked in a big office knows the proper response to daily greetings.  ‘Good morning’ is not a question.  Anyone who has made it to work knows what kind of morning it is, so responding with anything besides ‘good morning’ is inviting trouble.

Sometimes it’s best not to say anything when asked ‘how are you,’ or ‘what’s up,’ or ‘how is your morning,’ ‘how is your day,’ or ‘how was your weekend.’  Instead, use non-verbal communication.  You may have to practice in a mirror, but it’s worth it in real time saved.

Coordinate you tight lipped smile with two eyebrows raised at the same time and a subtle nod.  That is your answer to every greeting.  It’s positive and encouraging without giving an opening.  Keep walking when you smile and wrinkle your forehead in case someone wants more time to talk and you don’t. 

You’re not being rude.

As a younger man I worked in a museum where one curator asked ‘How are ya’ everytime she saw someone.  She would ask it, and then ask it five minutes later.  No one ever said, ‘the same as I was five minutes ago.’  That is rude.  New people wondered out loud if the curator had brain damage after a day of twelve ‘how are yas.’ 

It would have been different if the lady asked ‘how are ya’ and moved on, but she didn’t.  Each time she said it she stopped for an update.  It made the new people feel like they weren’t making much of impression if the curator couldn’t remember asking them how they were so often. 

Two recent hires started goofing on the curator by asking each other ‘who are ya’ each time they saw one another.  The curator didn’t know she was being goofed on.  They changed it up and got a response to ‘how are ya’ when they began answering as if they mistakenly heard ‘who are ya.’ 

They told the curator their names after each ‘how are ya’ until she caught on and said “I’m not asking who you are.  Maybe you didn’t understand me.”

“I don’t understand why you say ‘how are ya’ twenty times a day.  Maybe you don’t recognize me?  That’s why I told you my name,” one of them said.

“Sure, I get that.  See, I’ve got lots on my mind.  I’m a curator, not a typist like you.  I love my work here so much I lose track of people and time.  What is the time?  Three o’clock?  I haven’t even stopped for lunch yet.”

She used the lunch routine every time a department head, or director, was close enough to hear her. 

A caregiver doesn’t need to gloss their work day with pretension any more than their loved one needs to fake their illness.  If you do make the mistake of asking a caregiver how they are, or any variation, be patient.  Allow them the time to express how they are.  It’ll be time well spent when the shoe is on the other foot.

Speaking to someone about the gravity of their loved one’s condition without judgment is a breath of fresh air to the caregiver.  They are near someone who doesn’t need care; someone who isn’t even sick.  They’re talking to someone with no idea of the stresses and pressures of the work.  In a way, they are free to talk.  It’s odd that they want to talk about being a caregiver, but let them have it.

You will be a caregiver one day and someone will ask, ”how are you?”  You’ll want to get it right the first time.  Sometimes people don’t know what they are really asking.  They use words of common greetings and expect the same in return, but a caregiver lives in an uncommon world. 

Be prepared.     



2 thoughts on “Applied Caregiving

  1. contoveros says:


    How right you are. Unless you’ve been there, it is so hard to understand how the lives of the “survivors’ and the caregivers would change in relation to all other relationships.
    We simply give pat answers when questioned about our loved ones. Unless the person is family or an intimate friend, they really don’t want to know how personalities change and how self-centered a person can become when a part of their brain has been damaged.
    I dislike myself every moment when I lose patience and become angry; how can someone be so cruel to someone with such an injury? You ought to be ashamed of yourself, I say to my self.

    But, we are only human, and need to remind ourselves or our own frailities, our own shortcomings, our lack of training to help those that need our help.

    God, I wish I could have the patience of Job to deal with it.

    Instead, I simply have other caregivers who know the score and will let me get it off my chest every now and then.

    thanks for listening,

    Michael J

    • David Gillaspie says:

      Hello Michael,
      There’s something about caregiving that hangs around longer than expected, a sort of value-added feeling. I talked to a friend whose mother is failing over the last year with extreme weight loss. He said he has a hard time being with her. On his last visit to my house he noticed a picture of my father in law in better days and commented that he looked pretty good, looked healthy and strong, not like the emaciated guy Parkinson’s turned him into.

      I don’t know how helpful it was but I told him he’d have memories of his mom in fine shape, that the memory of her aging image with revert to better times in the years to come.

      You sound good, Mike,

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