Caregiving is not a role that typically appears overnight. There are small things that go unnoticed— a quick errand to the pharmacy to pick up Mom’s medication, a short conversation with Dad’s doctor about a new diagnosis, or a review of an aunt’s investments that have come to term. Most of us don’t recognize that all of these aforementioned examples are a form of caregiving, or the support and assistance we provide on behalf of an ageing or ill loved one. The majority of us are awakened to our roles during an acute crisis such as when an ageing relative falls at home, loses his or her wallet or is hospitalized suddenly.
Regardless of when you identify yourself as a caregiver, here are 7 steps to better care for your loved one:
- Obtain diagnoses We don’t know how to help if we don’t know what the problem is. Ask your loved one to authorize you (through a legal document, if possible) to speak to all of his or her doctors to get a clear picture of your loved one’s health, symptoms and risks, as well as interventions available. Gather a list of medication— like dosing, administration times and the prescribing physician— and have it handy in case of an emergency.
- Protect finances If your loved one has the capacity to cognitively understand legal documents, ask him or her to sign a Power of Attorney for finances, investments, property and assets so that you can assist your loved one should they need help in the future. This is the only way to ensure your loved one’s financial security.
- Safeguard personal well-being If your loved one is in an acute crisis, or if their cognitive abilities deteriorate, who will represent him or her with medical decisions, housing decisions or care decisions? Ask your loved one to sign a legal document such as a Health Care Proxy so you have the legal authority to be your loved one’s voice should he/she be unable to make decisions independently. The terms of this proxy vary by region.
- Inform yourself Nonprofits like the Alzheimer’s Association, National Family Caregiving Association and the National Alliance for Caregiving can help connect you with local community groups and resources for you and for your loved one.
- Don’t be everything Caregiving is filled with rewards and joy, but it can also be overwhelming and exhausting. Do not wait to ask for help from family, friends, community agencies and health care providers. If you fall ill from your caregiving role, who will care for your loved one? It takes a village to support an ageing relative, so plan ahead for extra help in case you can’t be there for your loved one when he or she needs.
- Understand your role One of the reasons why ageing individuals are resistant to asking for help is they are afraid families will bulldoze their way into the situation and make independent decisions without consent. Your role is to represent your loved one’s wishes and to mobilize the plan that your loved one designs. Ask him or her what they want in terms of ongoing housing support, medical care, treatment, interventions, etc. Support a loved one with the choices he or she makes. Don’t make your own.
- Manage your expectations How would you feel if you were losing control of your body, mind and options? I bet you’d probably be afraid and alone. Be patient with your loved one and family. Ageing is a journey and an experience that evolves over time. Try to be present in each moment and allow your loved one time to absorb changes and accept realities. Recognize that not everyone in your family has the capabilities or willingness to join this journey in the same way as you. Let it go and be the caregiver you want to be, regardless of others’ expectations.
Stephanie Erickson, Family Caregiving Expert, host of Caregivers’ Circle