As a caregiver, don’t forget to care for yourself. Photo courtesy of ICHS.

The International Examiner thanks AARP for its contributions to the November 7 issue, to recognize that November is National Caregivers Month and to honor those who devote so much time and attention to caring for their loved ones.

Caring for a family member or close friend is one of the most important – and complicated – roles you’ll play. It can happen suddenly, with an accident or illness, or it may start with driving your loved one to get groceries or going to the doctor. Later, you may find yourself taking more time off from work, preparing meals or handling their finances.

Whether you’re just beginning to anticipate a need or taking care of a family member full-time, here are five steps to make the process easier for both you and your loved one.

Start the conversation

The right time to talk about the future is now – even if it’s uncomfortable. Ask your loved one about their wishes, values and preferences on things that matter, from health to finances. If you wait until a fall, accident or serious diagnosis, your choices may be more limited and more difficult to evaluate when everyone’s stress levels are sky-high.

–Look for an opening. Rather than bringing up a tough topic out of the blue, it can help to point to a newspaper story or a relevant comment as a conversation-starter. (Example: “You mentioned your eyes are bothering you. Is this causing problems with reading or driving?”)
–Don’t forget to talk about money: It’s often at the heart of decisions you’ll make as a caregiver. Respectfully ask them to review their bank accounts and health insurance so you can know how much is available to cover potential costs.
–Listen to and respect your loved one’s desires. The person you’re caring for should always participate in discussions about their needs and plans for their -future, to the extent that it’s possible.

Form a team

Don’t go it alone. Trying to handle the responsibilities of caregiving yourself can lead to burnout and stress-related health problems. It’s important to reach out to form a larger network of friends, family and community resources that can help you. Remember to consider your loved one part of the team.

–Go deep and wide. Team members need not all live nearby or have huge blocks of time to be of value. Family or friends living at a distance with limited schedules can pitch in with meal organizing, bill paying, or financial assistance. The computer whiz in the family could set up an electronic calendar for dinner delivery or chores.
–Decide who’s in charge. It’s important to have a point person to keep the process moving and make sure everyone on the team understands the plan and priorities. In most families, one person assumes the primary role because he or she lives nearby, has a close relationship, or simply is a take-charge person. That may be you.

Make a plan

Now it is time to work with your team to develop a plan, thinking both short term – such as determining who will be responsible for each caregiving task – and long term. You can’t anticipate every detail or scenario, but being forward-thinking now will help you respond more quickly and effectively in an emergency. It also helps assure that everyone keeps the focus on what’s best for your loved one.

–Determine roles. Ask your caregiving team members about what tasks they can and are willing to take on, while considering key points. Who is free to travel to medical appointments? Who can prepare meals a few times a week? Who can be responsible for bill paying? If you’re the primary caregiver, delegating even small tasks can make a big difference in your busy schedule.
–Be honest with yourself. What are you prepared to do? If you are uncomfortable with hands-on caregiving tasks, such as helping a loved one bathe, ask if another team member can step in. Or discuss whether there is money available to hire assistance.
–Summarize the plan in writing. A written record will assure that everyone is on the same page and avoid misunderstandings (while remembering, of course, that the plan will likely change as time passes).

Care for your loved one

This step encompasses the others, of course, and every caregiver’s situation is different. But there are a wide range of resources and tools that can make your job easier, whether you’re caring for a parent from another state, a spouse with a long-term illness or a family member with dementia. In any caregiving situation, it’s important to know where to get information and assistance.

–Advocate for yourself. Let the doctor know that you are the primary caregiver and need to be informed about your loved one’s condition and the treatments prescribed. Ask for training if you are expected to do procedures you’ve never done at home, such as injecting medication or changing bandages.
–Keep the home safe. If the person you’re caring for has more difficulty getting around or their vision or hearing fades, some simple changes can be made to make their home less hazardous. Consider installing things like handrails, grab bars, nightlights and adjustable shower seats.

Care for yourself

As a family caregiver, it’s easy to forget about your own needs – which is why caregivers are more likely to report high stress levels and suffer from depression, and other health problems. Don’t neglect exercise, sleep and healthy eating, and take time for activities you enjoy. You’ll need to keep up your energy and stay well to care for others.

–Find out if your workplace is accommodating. Your employer may be fine with your working from home part-time or making certain adjustments to your schedule. If you need more time off, consider asking whether you are covered by the Family and Medical Leave Act. (Many are, but if you work for a small company or haven’t worked for your employer long, you may not be eligible.)
–Give yourself a break. Sometimes caregivers feel guilty about taking time to have fun. Find ways to reduce your stress and enjoy yourself. Many turn to yoga or meditation, or arrange a weekly movie outing with friends. Think about what activities you find relaxing and/or energizing and put them on your to-do list.

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