When Helping is Hovering: 4 Golden Rules Every Caregiver Should Follow - The Mobility Resource

The first time I met Barton, I was washing dishes after a meal during a martial arts workshop. Barton wheeled right next to me and wanted to jump in to help. In my most Southern and condescending accent, I asked Barton if he wanted to help dry. I held a bowl and hovered over him while Barton took a towel to dry off the inside. It wasn’t until a friend called me to the side and asked if I had a problem with Barton that I realized I was being patronizing toward him.

When we are synch, there is a powerful connection and energy between us, one full of respect, humor and love for the other.

Yet, throughout our relationship, there is a fine line that can become blurry between wife, caregiver, lover, someone who genuinely cares, Barton’s natural ability to put it all out there, and my A personality type/OCD control freak that sometimes gets in the way.

Over the years, every so often this issue of hovering will come up, usually in the most unexpected places. The time when I asked Barton to work on the bills, but I grabbed the calculator and began crunching numbers. Or when Barton was sick and I worried even more when he told me he was fine.

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Most caregivers, whether a family member, spouse, or professional direct support staff, genuinely cares for the person they are with, often having the best of intentions. Yet for an adult living with a disability, being treated like a child can fill relationships with resentment and frustration. 

How can a caregiver, in whatever relationship dynamic, provide compassion and remain autonomous at the same time?

1) Define and Respect Clear Boundaries

As we shape, move and grow in our relationships we may need to define or refine boundaries, and respect them. Respecting someone may not be backing off, but it is recognizing when we cross over a boundary. We create boundaries all the time in a number of ways, spoken or unspoken. Designing clear boundaries in relationship to each other is foundational first step.

2) Recognize Autonomy and Independence

In our case, there is my husband and his needs, myself and my own needs, what Barton wishes for me, and what I want and hope for him. Sometimes my own wanting for Barton isn’t what he wants. This creates an internally frustrating situation that enables a cycle of “doing for” someone else. This is when we each take a step back, recognize the other person for who they are and respect their independence.

3) Maintain Space

Creating and maintaining space is a powerful way to respect the other person in a family or professional dynamic that dissipates the need to hover. Sometimes space is physical: certain rooms are off limits depending on the situation. At other times, space is emotional: taking a walk together provides space to return to the rhythm of our relationship.

4) Forgive and Move On

Family, spousal, and direct support relationships can last for a long time. We’re going to make mistakes and step over boundaries from time to time. How can we recognize when we are doing so? Returning, recreating, redesigning allows for us to come into awareness of what worked and what didn’t, and how to move on.

We spend an abundant amount of time communicating with each other, looking at situations we find ourselves in or patterns we create, to identify how we can do it better. The result?

In the ten years of marriage, we recognize how much we’ve grown individually and together in a rich relationship that is filled with love, respect, and gratitude.


Photo credit: Stan Cutter

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