Coping with Hibernators and Armchair Quarterbacks

By Daniel Kuhn, LCSW, Vice-President of Education,
All Trust Home Care, Author of Alzheimer’s Early Stages: First Steps for Family, Friends and Caregivers.

Caring for someone with Alzheimer’s disease or a related dementia requires practical help and moral support from other people on a regular basis. You are fortunate if who have family members and friends who can fill this need. It may also be necessary to hire someone to help with a variety of household and personal care tasks. Such helpers may be instrumental in preserving your well-being over the course of dementia. To describe them as “lifesavers” may not be an exaggeration. On the other hand, there may also people whose absence or presence may be problematic. They can frustrate you and undermine your confidence in making care decisions. I refer to such individuals as “hibernators” and “armchair quarterbacks.”

Hibernators are those relatives or friends who might be expected to be of service but excuse themselves from helping you. Like bears in winter, they cannot handle the bad weather and retreat into the privacy and security of their own lives. Trying to engage them seldom succeeds despite your repeated efforts. Much time and energy can be wasted persuading them to get involved in caring for someone with dementia. It is tempting to become bitter and resentful in response to their neglect. However, your negative reactions can become self‑destructive and all-consuming. It is better to focus instead on finding real sources of help. Reaching out to others and appreciating the efforts of those who are involved rather being upset about those who are not involved is a step in the right direction.

Armchair quarterbacks are those footballs fans who sit at home watching a game on television and second-guess the players or coaches after a play has occurred. It is obviously much easier to question such decisions from a distance instead of playing in the actual game. Armchair quarterbacks may think that they know how to play the game but they lack experience or credibility. So it is with relatives and friends who think that they know all about caring for someone with dementia and offer you unsolicited advice or criticism. They may have read books on the subject, attended seminars, and talked to experts. They may offer you countless ideas about drug treatments, health care providers or services. They second-guess your decisions. Their seemingly good intentions are overshadowed by their unwillingness to help out in practical ways. What they have to say falls on deaf ears because they are not actually “in the game.” Again, there is great potential for personal animosity in these relationships.

Armchair quarterbacks may care enough to change their ways and become active helpers. Setting limits on their unwanted advice may be a first step toward gaining their cooperation. They may need encouragement and directions on how to get directly involved in providing hands-on help. Giving them opportunities to spend significant time with someone living with dementia may be enlightening to them. For example, invite them to spend a weekend in your shoes, alone with the person who needs care. If armchair quarterbacks are unwilling to get involved on a practical level, it is best to avoid them as much as possible. However, if you are forgiving and patient with them, they should be encouraged to take part in sharing the responsibilities of day-to-day care.

You need to surround yourself with other people who can enable you to maintain a positive attitude in the midst of a difficult situation. People who truly listen to you and care for your needs as well as the needs of the person in your care are vital. Encounters with hibernators and armchair quarterbacks can be emotionally draining. Eliminating or minimizing their influence while preserving your relationships with helpful people is essential to your well-being. Caring for someone with dementia over the long haul requires other caring relationships.

To learn more about caring for someone with dementia and caring for yourself, see this free guide:

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