How to deal with well meaning advice

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I have a theory about parents (most often mothers, but I might be biased based on my experience!).  When we are born, we pick up a suitcase filled with guilt.  The contents may shift during flight, but it is almost always full.  Some examples are:  during pregnancy – whether or not she is having a natural childbirth.  Then, once she is a mother the questions shift slightly; whether she is nursing, using cloth diapers, sending child to day care, etc.

I think the “Mommy Wars” are fairly familiar to most of us. What I am learning in my eldercare career, is that guilt is the gift that keeps on giving.  I was in a consult recently with a dear woman who has been caring for her mother for several years and is now considering long term care facilities out of concern for her mother’s safety.  She was telling me, with tears in her eyes, about some of the comments she was hearing from friends and family such as (variations of) “You know your mom will really be happiest, safest, with you, at your home”

My head exploded a little bit at this point.  Really?  This poor woman has spent countless hours caring for her mother, painstakingly deliberated about and finally coming to terms with this incredibly difficult decision . . . only to receive this kind of feedback?

Once I calmed down a bit and began processing this, I realized that it is simply more of the same.  The “Mommy Wars” are clearly not limited to “Mommies”; but to anyone in any circumstance, at any time.   Caregivers have very similar experiences, and “helpful” friends and family members are offering ideas and ‘encouraging’ them to try different treatments, set different limits, and by all means “Take Care Of Yourself!" in their unique fashion.  Family members (often long distance) who are not directly involved with the day to day caregiving work are, unsurprisingly, notoriously generous with this type of unsolicited advice.  Possibly they are feeling guilty for their lack of involvement and are inclined to direct operations from afar.

Unsolicited advice may have its place (although I’m not sure where) but more often than not it’s annoying at best and hurtful at worst.  Research clearly indicates that too much “informational support” (read “advice”) can be more harmful than no support at all!

Here are a few thoughts that might be helpful to keep in mind when faced with another ‘helpful suggestion’:

Consider the source. 

Caregivers often seem to have targets on their backs that say “I need help”.   And it is true that people who offer unsolicited advice are certainly well intentioned.  Their notion of being helpful is to tell caregivers how to be a better caregiver and change what they are doing.

It is often a good idea to stop, (breathe) and consider the background/intentions of the messenger.  Often people really are trying to be helpful and are simply misinformed, and are not aware that their advice is coming across as critical.  Thus, the next suggestion:

Set boundaries.

Let’s be clear, receiving help is absolutely essential, and social support is extremely important.  However, it is very important to be clear about boundaries even when accepting help from others.  (Example:  Thank you so much for bringing this delicious meal.  I think my mom is a little too tired for a visit right now but she will surely enjoy it later!)

When people know about our boundaries, they’re more likely to respect them.

Delegate some responsibility.

Part of the problem with unsolicited advice is that seems as though often people would prefer to give advice than to actually help – but it might be that they just need a nudge!  One response that might be useful:  “It is so kind of you to offer these suggestions – what I could really use is (insert task here) Are you able to help with this?”   Often, if the request is clearly defined, then people are more inclined to take it on.

I found these 5 statements of affirmation from the website “The Caregiver Space”.  The author offered these to help “inoculate you from being intruded upon while allowing in the wisdom you want when you want it and from who you want to receive it”

  • I’m doing the best I can right now
  • Nobody else has the right to judge how I’m doing
  • Our family is entitled to privacy
  • It’s up to me to let people know about our boundaries
  • When people know about our boundaries, they’re more likely to respect them

To end with a touch of humor, a personal favorite (from sarcastic Zen sayings):

Before you criticize someone, you should walk a mile in their shoes.  That way, when you criticize them, you’re a mile away and you have their shoes.

Hope these thoughts are helpful to you and will allow you to unpack a little bit of guilt from your suitcase.

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About Author

Kim Andreaus

Work Life Program Manager

Kim Andreaus is the Aging and Eldercare Program Manager for Work/Life. She has experience in geropsychiatry; both inpatient and in a community mental health setting. In addition, she has been a faculty member at NCSU, UNC-CH and Wake Tech and has taught courses in gerontology and conducted training in geriatric mental health.

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