When a friend mentions to you that they are now taking care of a loved one with special physical or cognitive needs, it’s easy to underestimate what this truly means. And it quite possibly marks the beginning of the end of your friendship, if you don’t tread properly.

It can be a quick hit to your friendship in the case of a parent recovering from a broken hip. Or it can be a gradual demise, when your friend is caring for someone who has been diagnosed in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease.

In either instance, your friendship will be tested. Since a good friendship is a two-way street, this is not the time to wait for your caregiving friend to take initiative.

Do appreciate that they have a new and very demanding responsibility. Maybe it would be better to think about it as an unpaid job they didn’t apply for, but now have to balance with a career or life’s other responsibilities.

It’s a job. Even when they aren’t physically doing something, they are still mentally consumed. They are wondering what to do next, or rehashing something they feel they did wrong.

Quite often, especially in the case of a disease like Alzheimer’s or other dementia, this responsibility can consume them 24/7. It can wreak havoc on their physical, emotional, and financial welfare.

Do understand that they may do or say things they normally wouldn’t. Cut them some slack.

Don’t judge them based on how they are acting now, keep in mind why you became friends.

Listen to them with an open heart. Let them share, but don’t push them to share more than they want.

If they share their feelings, validate them, and don’t tell them how they should be feeling. For instance, people don’t want to be told they should be happy, or feel lucky to have the opportunity to care for someone.

Attempt to steer the conversation to non-caregiving topics to help them get a mental break. But don’t change the subject or interrupt if they are venting. While talking about something different may be ideal for you, sharing is likely therapeutic for them.

Do educate yourself about the challenges they are facing. For instance, if they are caring for a loved one with Alzheimer’s, visit Together in This for a basic overview of the disease.

Don’t tell them they should also check out this wonderful resource you found. But tell them you discovered a wonderful resource that has taught you a lot.

This is a subtly different approach. They will tell you if they are interested in learning more, by showing interest.

Know that while you may become “book smart,” they are becoming “street smart.” Don’t offer too much advice unless you know them very well, and unless they are receptive. You will know it’s the right time when they ask you questions about what you’ve learned.

Pick up the phone and call. Don’t send email, and wait for a response.

Do offer to help with specific actions, such as saying, “I’m going to the store, can I pick some things up for you?” Don’t say, “Let me know if I can help.”

Find ways to stay involved in their life, even if it’s only a periodic phone call. And always make things as easy as possible for your friend.

However, if they resist, don’t crowd them or push them to do something. They may need time to recharge, and added pressure may push them further away from you.

Your friend didn’t ask for this added responsibility but they’ve accepted it. And it’s important for you to remember that their caring nature is one of the qualities you love about them.

You might feel confused, worried, or afraid to get involved, but your friend needs you more than ever. So do be a true friend.

What things do you do to be a friend for someone who is caring for a loved one? Or if you’re the caregiver, what’s your advice for others who want to be a true friend? Please join the conversation below.

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