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The Life Transition Blog

The 5 Languages of Family Caregiving


Many of you are probably familiar with Dr. Gary Chapman’s timeless bestseller, “The 5 Love Languages”.  Originally published in 1992 and updated many times since, Dr. Chapman’s premise is that couples who understand each other’s “love language” have a distinct advantage because they are able to effectively communicate with the people with whom they are in relationships, be it a spouse, child, boss, or business partner to name just a few.  Over the past several years, I have applied Dr. Chapman’s approach in my family caregiver coaching and have seen tremendous benefits for my clients.   As caregivers learn to identify their own caregiving language and that of their caregiving partners and care recipients, they are better able to navigate the inevitable challenges.

One of the most common frustrations I hear from caregivers is that they feel taken for granted, not so much by their care recipient, but by other family members who seem to expect them to just keep managing everything with little help or support.   When I work with these caregivers to get underneath the surface of what is really going on, I often find that the caregiver has never explicitly asked his siblings for help, or if he does ask, makes a vague request like, “I wish you’d help out more with Dad.”  When we unpack this frustration, I almost always find that the perceived disconnect is a (lack of) communication issue.  Even if messages have been exchanged, the parties are speaking in two separate languages.   This repeated observation got me to thinking about other types of relationships where communication issues are at the heart of so much distress and I took the time to review some of the major works on the topic and how it might apply to my clients.  And that is what led me to Dr. Chapman’s work.

Since it is unusual that two individuals in a relationship (of any kind) will have exactly the same love language profile, Dr. Chapman counsels that it is imperative to make sure that you know not only what you need and communicate that to your partner, but also that you know what your partner needs because he or she has communicated that to you.   Dr. Chapman identifies five distinct “love languages”:  words of affirmation, quality time, receiving gifts, acts of service, and physical touch.   I have found that these very same languages can be applied to caregiving relationships.

A caregiver whose “language” is words of affirmation is someone who thrives on verbal compliments or hearing encouraging words.   If your sister, who is the primary caregiver for your Mom, is of this profile, taking the time to talk with her about how much you appreciate or how skilled she is at providing or organizing the care may be what she needs most to keep her going.  On the other hand, if her primary language is “quality time” then she will value the fact that you come to visit and give her your undivided attention much more.   Similarly, a caregiver who values receiving gifts will respond positively if you send a gift card for her to go get herself a massage, while the caregiver who values acts of service will be far more comfortable when you come and do the actual caregiving work for an afternoon.  Finally, the caregiver who craves physical touch will just want to be held after a hard day with Dad.  In this way, he or she will know that you are there and that you care.

I encourage my clients to identify their own caregiving language and then to effectively communicate that to their care recipients and caregiving partners.  For example, one client learned to say, “You know, I can get through even the toughest day taking care of my husband when one of our children comes over or calls and asks me about what’s going on with me.”  Can you guess which language this caregiver prefers?  If you guessed “quality time” you are correct.  This woman doesn’t need to be told she’s doing a wonderful job or sent a gift certificate for dinner and a movie.   She doesn’t even really want you to take her husband to his doctor’s appointment or give her a hug.  Now don’t get me wrong – this caregiver would WELCOME all of those gestures.  But the thing she most craves?  It is that you sit and really listen when she talks, that you pay real attention to what she is thinking and feeling.

If only family caregivers knew this important reality from the outset of their caregiving journey!  The tricky part of all of this is something that I say often: the golden rule doesn’t work when it comes to caregiving.  You don’t “do unto others as you would want”, but rather you “do unto the other as he or she wants”.
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