Love. It is such a simple word that has so many varying different expressions. There is the love we give to our spouse, which is different from the love expressed to our children, and yet different again in how we express love to our friends.
In 1992, renowned marriage expert Dr. Gary Chapman wrote a revolutionary book titled “The Five Love Languages” in which he helped us see that all people express and desire to receive expressions of love differently. Chapman’s book was focused on the marriage relationship, but since it was published, many companion pieces have been written about how these simple concepts are relatable to all relationships.
The caregiver role is one that is full of so many emotions and yet the central expression is love.
The caregiver role is one that is full of so many emotions and yet the central expression is love. It is true that some people give care out of a sense of obligation, but most have the driving force of love and devotion. Love is what gets them out of bed for the third time in the middle of the night as they hear their loved one calling. Love is what drives them to spend hours each week organizing medications. Love is what encourages them to sit down and listen to Mom tell the same story over and over again.
My sister, brother, mom and I all cared for our father when he was diagnosed with cancer and subsequently was admitted to a hospice program. Each of us loved my dad dearly, but how we expressed our love to him looked different. We are different people. Each of our relationships with Dad was unique and special. Love was so present in our caregiving in many ways.
Using Chapman’s iconic book, we will look at the Five Love Languages of Caregiving and how love is given and received in this relationship, and begin to appreciate and respect how different family members all express love and caregiving in their own unique way.
Love Language #1: Words of Affirmation
“Love is kind. If then we are to communicate love verbally, we must use kind words.”
Dr. Gary Chapman
Jamie and her husband Carl cared for Jamie’s mother for many years before she passed away. First she was in their home and then they moved her into a nursing facility when she needed more care. Jamie made all the arrangements, planned transportation, signed the forms, packed her mom’s belongings and the many other tasks involved in moving a loved one into a nursing home.
The big day came and Jamie got to work getting her mom settled, but noticed that Carl was nowhere to be seen. She began to get frustrated as more time passed and still no sign of Carl. A couple of hours later, after all the unpacking had been done, Carl appears in the room and Jamie immediately gets angry with him. “Where have you been? I have been in here working myself to the bone and you have probably just been talking!”
Carl very calmly explains, “Yes, I have been talking. I have been talking to all of the staff. I introduced myself and told them about your mom and I was getting to know them. I have asked about their lives, their children and thanked them in advance for taking care of Grammy. I want them to know I care about them because then they will give Grammy more attention and affection when we are not here and I know that is a huge fear for you.”
In that moment, Jamie saw that Carl was being a caregiver in his way. He was giving words of affirmation to the staff and that is how he cared for her and her mother.
How to be a caregiver alongside someone whose love language is Words of Affirmation:
Speak words of appreciation, encouragement and love to each other.
Love does not keep a record of wrong. Use kindness in your words to each other and let the past be that; the past.
Love is not demanding. When you need something, make a request and not a demand.
Express gratefulness for what has been done and don’t focus on what has not.
Love Language #2: Quality Time
Spending quality time with the people you love is something that most of us enjoy, but for some, this is the ultimate expression of love. For those whose primary love language is Quality Time, sitting and talking, enjoying an activity together and being fully present is the ultimate way to give and receive love.
Mary and her husband Brad cared for their adult daughter who had developmental delays. Mary was the primary caregiver and did not work outside of the home. Brad was a hard worker and a loving provider for their family. For many years, he worked to build his business and provide financial security for his family.
One of the by-products of quality activities is that they provide a memory bank from which to draw in the years ahead.
He thought he was doing the most loving thing, but Mary was not happy. She was sad and felt so alone most days. Long days of caregiving would deplete her of any energy she had left. She would often say that she wished Brad would work less and spend more time with her, and yet Brad felt he was doing what would help her the most, as she wouldn’t have to worry about finances.
But, what Mary wanted was him. She wanted his attention and his love. They slowly began to figure this out and Brad began to make time with Mary more of a priority. He would arrange for someone to watch their daughter so they could go to dinner alone. He began to call her during the day, not to talk details, but to see how she was feeling and engage in her everyday life. Even when he had to be away for work, he created ways for Mary to feel his love and planned events for them once he returned.
As Dr. Chapman states, “One of the by-products of quality activities is that they provide a memory bank from which to draw in the years ahead.” Brad began to speak Mary’s love language and she was able to caregive from a happier, more secure place and peace returned to their home.
How to be a caregiver alongside someone whose love language is Quality Time
Learn to really listen when your loved one is speaking. Look them in the eye and do not attempt to complete another task while they are talking to you.
Acknowledge their feelings without trying to “fix” anything, watch their body language and do not interrupt. Be fully present!
Arrange for help with household chores to free up more quality time together.
Make the time for quality activities — no more excuses.
Love Language #3: Receiving Gifts
“Almost everything ever written on the subject of love indicates that at the heart of love is the spirit of giving.”
Dr. Gary Chapman
Gift-giving is one of the oldest ways people express their love to one another. Whenever we attend a happy event, a wedding, baby shower, birthdays, or graduations, we bring gifts!
We honor people by spending time thinking about them, picking a gift out just for that one special person, wrapping it and presenting this beautiful visual representation of love. Very often, the dollar amount is not nearly as important as the time and thought devoted to the act of gift-giving.
Richard lived in an assisted living center and had three sons who all cared for him in their own way. His oldest managed his finances and ensured that everything was paid on time and that his money was being invested wisely. Richard’s middle son took him to doctor’s appointments, the grocery store and kept in communication with the staff at the facility. And Richard’s youngest son was the free spirit. He jumped from job to job and passion to passion.
He did not take on any “official” tasks in caring for his dad and his brothers would often get angry with him, and with Richard, because Richard would defend his youngest son. He would tell the other boys, “You don’t see him like I do. He comes and visits and always brings something: an article he thinks I will like ripped from an old magazine, a new shirt he found at Goodwill, his leftovers from lunch. Nothing big but he comes, he visits and he brings me something that lets me know he is always thinking of me. I feel loved by all of you, including your little brother.”
Richard was able to accept loving care freely given by each of his sons in all their unique and beautiful ways.
How to be a caregiver alongside someone whose love language is Receiving Gifts
Accept their gifts with gratitude and love no matter how small, even if you don’t like it.
Honor the wisdom that one of the greatest gifts you can give is the gift of self. Be present for each other and slow down! Try not to rush around completing tasks, but give of yourself and your spirit.
Bring them a gift — a small token of your appreciation that you are caregiving together. This will go such a long way in helping someone with this love language truly feel like you are a team.
Love Language #4: Acts of Service
Jan was caring for her father in her home, and her sister, Martha, lived close by and was an active caregiver as well. Jan and Martha worked so well together taking care of their daddy. They had love and respect for one another in the process of caregiving.
It was Martha’s practice to come by every day after work and check in on her dad and sister; she also knew that Jan’s love language is Acts of Service. So, when she arrived she would immediately take over whatever task Jan was doing and say something like, “I’ve got this. I can tell you have worked so hard today. Let me finish loading the dishwasher and cleaning up the kitchen.”
For a weary caregiver, offering to help in tangible ways will sing love to them.
This was their routine to the point that when Jan saw Martha’s car turn the corner, she was filled with love for her sister and love for the caregiving process. Martha helped to fill Jan’s “love tank” so that the everyday duties of caregiving never felt crushing. She knew her sister understood her and appreciated her.
For a weary caregiver, (regardless of what their primary love language is) offering to help in tangible ways will sing love to them. “Let me know if I can do something for you,” is a lot less meaningful than “I would like to come and mow your yard on Wednesday. Let me know if that works with your schedule.” Offering very real help during a time when it can be hard for caregivers to even know what they need is a sure way to show your love and appreciation.
How to be a caregiver alongside someone whose love language is Acts of Service
Create a list of things you would like to do to help (bring a meal, clean their bathrooms, do laundry, go to the grocery store) and ask them which day would be good for them.
When you are visiting, look around. If there is a broom handy, start sweeping while talking. If you notice that they are low on household staples when you leave, run by the store; drop those things off to them during your next visit.
Get a group of friends together and have meals delivered a couple times a week.
Love Language #5: Physical Touch
Sadly, this life is full of crisis — auto accidents, illness, lost jobs, divorces and of course the death of dear loved ones. Crisis is all around us, and when these moments come, the natural instinct of many is to reach out and offer a hug. Physical touch is a way that all cultures show love and concern to each other. During times of crisis, we all long to feel loved, heard and supported.
Caregiving can have many crisis moments. “There are no more treatments.” “Your mother needs to be admitted to the hospital.” “The cancer has spread.” “I am so sorry, but you need to find another nursing home for your husband. He can’t stay here.” These are all statements that caregivers have heard and they each bring tremendous stress and sadness. For someone who has the primary love language of Physical Touch, a hug, a loving hand placed on the shoulder or a holding of the hand will all convey that you are present in their crisis in a huge way.
During times of crisis, we all long to feel loved, heard and supported.
Barbara and her wife Vicky cared for Barbara’s brother, Gary, who was on hospice after a lengthy battle with cancer. He was living at an inpatient hospice facility and everyone knew that his time was short. Barbara was Gary’s primary caregiver and had been taking him to appointments, helping him through chemo, cooking for him, cleaning his home and doing all the other tasks of caregiving for many years. Barbara and Gary’s love for each other ran very deep
Vicky began to see her wife withdraw into herself as Gary began to slip away and become less responsive. Barbara would sit in the room with Gary, her arms tightly wrapped around herself, and every few minutes, she would reach out and touch Gary. Vicky realized that Barbara needed love. She needed to have a physical reminder that she was a good caregiver and had done well.
Vicky made a conscious decision to offer her love to Barbara in the ways that she needed. She held her hand, stood by Gary’s bed with a hand on Barbara’s shoulder and wiped her tears away as she cried. She was physically, and thus emotionally, present for Barbara.
As Gary took his last breath, Vicky held Barbara and supported her weight as she wept for her brother. Vicky did not let go and Barbara will say she does not remember much of that day except that “Vicky was there. She did not say much but she was with me. She held me, she loved me and I knew I could face tomorrow because she was going to be with me.”
How to be a caregiver alongside someone whose love language is Physical Touch
Find ways to offer your physical presence to them through a hug, holding a hand, stroking stoking their back or gently rubbing their shoulders.
Do not shy away from their touch even if this is not your love language. If you did not grow up in a “touchy” family, it may seem awkward at first. Be patient with yourself as you learn to express love in a different way.
Having something soft to hold can help someone whose love language is physical touch. When you have to leave, bring them a pillow to hold or a blanket to lay across their lap. This can be a great comfort.
All five of these love languages are important and should be present in any relationship. If someone you love has the primary love language of Gift-Giving, Gift Giving that does not mean that you never hug her or complete a task for her. As Dr. Chapman says say, all of the love languages will convey love, but when you find the one that really speaks to your loved one, that language that one will sing of your love for her.
My siblings, mother and I were able to love each other and my dad in very real ways and we are continuing even though Dad is now gone. My dad taught us about love — about meeting people where they are and loving them in the ways that they need. So even though Dad is not here physically with us anymore, his loving spirit will always be alive in our hearts.
* All stories are based on actual caregivers but the names and some details have been changed to protect confidentiality.