The unfortunate truth is this: the illness or disability or injury of the one in your care may become such a focus it almost replaces the rest of their identity. This process, initiated by family and friends as well as by professionals and strangers, is often unintentional and unconscious. But it can be a hurtful experience.

This tendency to diminish and dehumanize the other can occur in various ways. You may make decisions for him without bothering to consult him. Or you may treat her as helpless by doing things she is capable of doing herself, things she even wishes to do. You may use infantile language, as in, “What are we going to wear today, dear?” You may find yourself feeling pity rather than empathy or sympathy.

Never forget: the person you’re caring for is just as human, just as unique as before. They are just as sacred, just as valued as ever. And that person deserves to be respected and treated as such. Ask yourself: if you do not treat them that way, who will?

Some ways you can be conscious of relating to the other as an equal include:

  • Expect the other to maintain as much control over their life as is possible under the circumstances. Support them in this for as long as feasible.
  • Focus on what you esteem in the other. Validate that by what you say and do. Make sure the other knows what you respect and love about them.
  • If the other has changed a great deal as a result of their illness or disability, look beneath the surface and treasure their heart and soul. Recall who they are underneath.
  • Be accepting of the other’s place on their journey, even if it’s not where you believe you would be if you were in their situation. For starters, you can’t know for sure how you would respond-it hasn’t happened to you. In addition, it’s not your role to change the other person. Only they can do that.

Relating to the other as your equal is a healthy thing to do, but that does not mean it’s easy to do. The other may not agree with you-and has that right. The other may get angry-and has that freedom. The other may test you and try to alienate you, to see how committed you are to continuing this journey with them. The other may take out their frustrations on you, when they’re really upset about something or someone else. You may be a “safe target” for their strong feelings, or perhaps even the only target available to them.

When you have times of strain, here are some ways to handle it:

  • Honestly look to see if you have been treating the other as less than equal, even in small ways. If you have, admit it. Then stop it.
  • Visualize yourself in the other’s situation. Ask yourself what you might feel, how you might behave, what you might be tempted to do. Then remember this when you’re with the other, and also when you’re away.
  • Listen as non-defensively as you can to any words of anger or criticism. If the feelings directed your way are justified, talk it through. Be genuine. If the feelings are really directed elsewhere but happens to land on you, try not to take it personally. Be understanding. If talking with the one in your care is not an option, then make sure you have someone else to whom you can turn.
  • Take a break if you feel hurt or impatient or unfairly criticized. Find ways to unwind. Find methods to be refreshed.

Remind yourself what you already know: strong relationships can withstand difficult times. In fact, it is the successful resolution of such times, which can make your relationships even stronger.

Excerpted from When You’re The Caregiver: 12 Things to Do If Someone You Know is Ill or Incapacitated, distributed by Willowgreen Publishing, 10351 Dawson’s Creek Boulevard, Suite B, Fort Wayne, Indiana 46825.

James Miller


  • Jim is a writer, grief counselor, spiritual director, and photographer who lives and works in Fort Wayne, Indiana. He is the author of 21 books in the areas of illness and caregiving, loss and grief, managing transition, older age, and spirituality. He has completed 22 videotapes in the same fields.