How to Show a Terminal Family Member They’re Not a Burden
By ELLEN KLEIN
For terminally ill patients, the fear of becoming a burden on family members is a common concern. Even when their loved ones don’t think of them like that, this is often how they see themselves.
Equally, many personal stories and studies report that when a terminal patient feels this way, they become depressed or lash out in aggressive frustration. Interview-based research published in 2019 suggests that this sense of being a burden can motivate the sick individual’s wish to die.
However, that’s not to say it’s impossible for your ill family member to have an excellent quality of life still or for you to enjoy the time left with them. In looking at palliative care patients’ needs in 2007, researchers found that four key elements helped alleviate terminal family members’ anxiety over being a burden to others:
- Managing the care duties
- Maintaining or developing spirituality
- Maintaining close relationships
- Planning for the future
With that in mind, the question for someone who’s caring for a loved one with a terminal diagnosis becomes how they can implement these principles in daily interactions. Ten practical solutions for doing just that are outlined below.
Don’t Avoid the Topic
Acknowledging what’s going on and how difficult it is can be therapeutic for everyone involved. Discuss the realities of the situation and admit that it is work but explain that you don’t consider it a burden and want to be doing it.
The honest will bolster your relationship and make it easier to discuss care duties, so it ticks two of the helpful-principles-to-negate-the-feeling-of-a-burden boxes.
Make it Easy for Them to Connect with Others
Some people use their final diagnosis as a motivation to really start living. That doesn’t only mean doing all the things they’ve never done before and eating whatever they feel like (though we’ll get to both of those points), it also means getting over grudges and reconnecting with others.
If it’s possible to drive them to see someone or have someone over to see them, it could make all the difference to how they feel. And if you can’t do that, harness the miracle of modern technology and set up a video call or social media account for them.
Create (Big and Small) Celebrations at Mealtimes
When someone is sick, they won’t necessarily feel like big, blow-out celebrations at every meal or even every week. That’s why this tip is about special moments of all sizes.
You can break out the party gear now and then, but just cooking their favorite dishes, using your best china and spending time together is meaningful too. The time you take will show your family member how important they are to you.
Work on Their Bucket List
When someone has an advanced illness and decides to go into palliative care, it might seem like they’re giving up. But experienced nurses say that this is often not the case – even as people make peace with death, they still have plenty of living that they want to do in this life. That’s where connecting with loved ones, and ticking items off a bucket list comes in.
Always wanted to go on a hot air balloon ride? There’s no time like the present. And if health or financial restrictions mean you can’t go somewhere, get creative. It could end up being so much more special. Cook carbonara if their dream is to go to Italy or take your car around an empty parking lot (but be careful!) while dressed up as Mickey Mouse if their wish is to visit Disneyland.
Give Personalized Gifts
In this context, gifts mean care packages that will help them feel physically better and loved at the same time. Pick up some of their favorite bubble bath, anti-nausea tea, soft blankets, and light-hearted reading material – whatever shows that you’re thinking about them.
Use the Power of Touch
Touch is a simple way of expressing care. Studies show it fosters a sense of trust and safety, which can only bolster the relationship you have with your advanced-illness family member and bolster their feeling of well-being. Brushing their hair, squeezing their hand, or hugging them will all get those feel-good endorphins going.
Offer Practical Assistance
Think school runs, grocery shopping, drop-offs at doctor’s appointments, or cleaning up the kitchen. Again, it’s a donation of your time, being honest, and helping the individual in the ways that they actually need. Hopefully, your being so frank about it all will help alleviate their shame of being a burden.
Accept Their Help Whenever You Can
Just as you give practical help wherever possible, accept it from them whenever you can. If someone feels like they’re contributing too, they’re a lot less likely to feel guilty accepting your help.
You’re in this together, and taking what they can offer will demonstrate that. In a reality where a lot of things feel out of control, it can be downright therapeutic for a terminal individual to be able to manage a specific situation.
Help Them with Their Plans
Talk about the future and the fact that they won’t be here forever before it’s crunch time. Knowing that their funeral plans, Do Not Resuscitate orders, and other arrangements are in place can go a long way to helping anyone relax.
You might need to help draw up a last will and testament, secure a guaranteed life insurance policy, or assist with their end-of-life plans in other ways.
Finally, Create Your Own New Rituals
Just because someone is physically ill or weaker than they were, doesn’t mean their capacity for joy and fun is any less. Adapt your old traditions to your current situation or create entirely new rituals. If a grandparent moves into your home for the final few months of life, for example, what could be more beautiful than a new habit of reading to the grandchildren every night? Their last days will be happy, and the kids will have memories they can treasure forever.
While each scenario is slightly different, and an illness takes its toll in varying ways, these principles can be applied in almost all cases. For both the patient and family, coping with a terminal diagnosis is never easy. However, by alleviating the concern of being a burden, everyone can focus on the time they have left, and how to make it count.
Ellen Klein is an Editor at Choice Mutual, where she covers topics such as financial management and risk management. She’s a realist and believes that planning for life’s unknowns is best. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org