Most of life’s big changes come with some degree of anxiety as we enter uncharted waters. Moving away to university, starting a new job or career, getting married or becoming a new parent are changes that arrive with much excitement and fear of the unknown. Similarly, becoming a caregiver to an aged parent shares many of these traits: a sense of accomplishment, greater intimacy and inner growth, as well as challenges and fears.
To help ease any anxiety about this new role that you may be facing, keep this article in a handy place and review it regularly. Here are 10 things any caregiver needs to know to help to make this new transition in life more manageable.
1. Declutter the house
Initially, the word “decluttering” sounds like a tedious, timing-consuming and unpleasant chore that will take away the very little free time you have. But this is a necessary and important task. It will free-up space, eliminate disorder and greatly reduce the chances of unnecessary accidents and falls for an older adult. Ask family and friends to help, or engage one of the many companies whose sole business is to help organize.
2. Calendar management reigns
You are probably juggling work and family responsibilities as well as caregiving, so scheduling is key. If you don’t write your parents’ appointments in the same place, you are guaranteed to double-book yourself or forget them entirely. So one of the first things you must do is set up a shared, printable calendar on your computer, or get a day-planner application for your smart phone. If you’re still a paper-and-pen kind of person, use a day planner or agenda and keep it with you at all times.
Enter absolutely everything—appointments, routines, errands, to-do lists and so on. Color-code your parents’ appointments. This will not only help you to schedule your own time, but also to organize and share information with friends and family about your caregiving responsibilities on a given day or week.
Finally, be sure to allow enough time. Appointments usually don’t go as expected and there are often delays. The last thing you want to be is time-stressed by having to wait, or thinking about your next stop while in the middle of an important discussion with your parents’ doctor.
3. As the saying goes, “Patience is a virtue”
You have probably had a very long day. You were up at 5am to drive your children to hockey practice, waited around in the ice-cold arena, drove them to school, called Mom to tell her you’d be over at lunchtime to take her to the doctor…and then you headed off to work. The fact of the matter is that juggling family responsibilities, work and caregiving requires an enormous amount of patience on top of your already busy schedule.
If you feel constantly frustrated and lacking patience, try to determine why. Do the same triggers cause you to lose your sense of calm? Make a list, ask for help and deal with items in priority order. When you feel your patience wearing thin, walk away and take a break. Don’t sweat the unimportant things. Save your time and energy—you’ll need both later.
4. The right decision needs the right questions
When taking care of your aged loved one, you must be comfortable asking questions. If you don’t ask the right questions then you will have to make important decisions without sufficient information. So, get to know routines, schedules, appointments, needs, likes and dislikes, and dietary information. Try to discuss things openly so you can stay on track. Do you know where your parents’ will is? Does it need to be updated? Has your loved one chosen a power of attorney for both care and finances?
5. It’s never too late to learn
Caregiving comes with bumps and hurdles along the way, especially when the health of your loved one changes. To effectively deal with the unexpected, try to anticipate what might happen and create best- and worst-case scenarios and budgets.
For example, if you suspect your loved one is showing the early warning signs of Alzheimer’s, read about the disease and what the future might bring. Learn about possible modifications that the home environment will need, how to better communicate, what activities are stimulating and beneficial, and new medications that can slow the progression of the disease. Knowing what to expect can reduce anxiety and fear, and prepare you mentally and physically for the road ahead.
6. Open the lines of communication
The goal of every caregiver is to abide by the wishes of his or her aging parents. But unless you find out what those wishes are, you won’t know what to do or have peace of mind in your decisions. Although sensitive topics are difficult to raise, try to talk openly with your loved one.
Do you know what your parents want, should they become incapacitated or unable to make a health decision? Where do they want to live: at home, in a retirement residence with private care or in a nursing home? Are your loved ones comfortable with having a caregiver in their own home? By keeping the lines of communication open, you are much more likely to be able to respect and respond to their wishes and meet their needs.
7. Consider your own family
While the demands of caregiving may make it feel like you have no time left at the end of the day, it is important to consider the effect your caregiving is having on your own family and your spouse or partner. Take time to discuss your loved one’s situation, the changes that are occurring and how they will affect your daily routines. Discuss possibilities and options and, if you find a willing ear, ask for support and assistance where possible. If those who are near and dear to you can help out, it may make them feel more included and closer to you during these difficult times.
For some caregivers the journey is short and crisis-driven, but many of us find our caregiving time extends over a number of years. If this is the case, it is important to ask yourself if you are spending enough time with your partner and children. These relationships are not only essential to maintaining mental health and balance in your life, but they are also important for the sake of your future.
Take time to talk to your spouse each day, spend special time with each one of your children, remember special occasions and try to find opportunities for respite and to rebuild your energy. Go out for dinner once a week; head to the movies once in a while. Even having a quick cup of coffee after work will give you time to catch up on what is important in your family’s lives. It will also give you a much-needed change of scenery, some enjoyment and a break from your busy schedule.
8. Know when it’s better to spend than to save
As a caregiver, you will be faced with many decisions that touch all aspects of your loved one’s life, from health to finances and home maintenance. While the natural inclination of families is to save as much money as possible, there are times when failing to spend can actually cost more in the long run.
For example, is your love one still renting that terribly inefficient, 30-year-old hot-water heater? Why not call the provider and ask how much it might cost to replace it? Or think about the fact that Band-Aid solutions to leaks in the roof or plumbing can often cost far more to fix properly later. The same is often true of appliances and automobiles.
Similarly, trying to save money by hiring a caregiver who is not qualified can leave your parent at risk. Imagine what might happen if the person lacks the necessary experience when it comes to essential caregiving tasks, or if they are unable to identify changing healthcare needs and respond accordingly. In addition, many families try to save by paying cash under the table—not a wise idea for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the loss of your ability to claim tax credits.
9. No need to quit the day job
For many of us, our career is an essential part of our identity. We have taken on significant workloads and responsibilities over the years and make valuable contributions. Aside from providing an income, our work gives us feelings of success, accomplishment and pride. However, when the need to provide care becomes a reality, we are often forced to juggle the needs of our loved ones with those of our clients and the organizations we work for.
This can be both disruptive to daily work routines and quite stressful. Most of us do not want to miss time at work or leave altogether, so try to create an “understanding workplace” where your needs can be discussed. Finding ways to continue to perform your duties with flexible hours, short absences or a change in responsibilities can make caregiving more manageable.
Think ahead when you can. Talk to other caregivers or find a support group where others can give you suggestions. Plan solutions that will give you relief and keep things as non-disruptive as possible during the workday. If you do need time, think about getting to work early or working late for a few days a week in order to be able to take an extra day off to be with your parents. Take turns with siblings if possible, and don’t be afraid to ask them for help. Could you work out of your loved one’s home while they are convalescing?
Take a morning off to visit your parent’s doctor and make it your business to understand exactly what you are dealing with when it comes to healthcare issues. He or she will help you access resources from the provincial health system. Can you hire a reliable staffing agency that can help out during the time when you are a work? Are your parents just bored and lonely when they call you at work or are they at risk? Arrange a time to call each day that they can look forward to and won’t be as disruptive to you. Ask a health professional with solid care management experience to provide an in-home assessment for safety and care alternatives that will work for both you and your loved ones. The less you are taken by surprise, the better your chances of being able to stay on the job.
In case you really do need time off, there has been some good new recently. Thankfully, the provinces are recognizing that employees require time off not only to care for young children, but also for aging parents. For example, under Family Medical Leave in Ontario, you may be able to take up to eight weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave in a 26-week period to care for your aging parents if there is a serious risk of death within 26 weeks. If you qualify for leave, this removes the worry that you will lose your job to care for your loved one.
10. What’s your back-up plan?
Life doesn’t stop just because you’re a caregiver, and things will pull you away from your caregiving role from time to time. Some absences may be planned, but others will be unexpected: you or your children aren’t well, business travel is required, a paid caregiver doesn’t show up or you’re planning a much-needed holiday.
Is there a family member or neighbour who can step in to make arrangements with paid care providers or actually assume some of the tasks themselves? It may not be too much to ask someone to check in on or visit your mom every day, or help with shopping or a drive to the dentist.
Give each back-up person a detailed list of daily routines, important phone numbers (e.g., physicians, pharmacy, other family members) and appointments, with addresses and contact information. Let them know what your loved ones like to eat, what activities they enjoy and how to settle them if they become upset or agitated. Don’t be afraid to give people too much information—more is better. Of course, if your loved one is more fragile or in a care home then your circumstances might be quite different, but the same principles apply.
Simplifying caregiving reduces stress and helps the caregiver maintain relationships, hobbies, activities and a vibrant career. And, most importantly when caregiving responsibilities are well-managed, caregivers themselves stay healthy and happy, and much more helpful to their loved ones in the long run.