Survival Guide for Caregivers

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by Don Bagwell, CIRS-A

There’s no place like home, and it’s everyone’s goal to remain at home as long as possible. But for many with chronic and life-changing illnesses, living in the community requires increasing support and assistance. Aging in place may include the need for family members to provide some level of care for their elderly relatives. Becoming a caregiver is a transition that may be challenging. Fortunately, there are some tips to consider to make this on-the –job training much easier.

Assess the Situation. When your loved one gets a diagnosis of an illness, you and your family can be devastated. It’s an emotional time that may be filled with fear and trepidation. But in order to effectively mobilize a plan of action, it’s critical to get an objective and realistic assessment of your loved one’s condition, abilities, and needs. It may be helpful to arrange a second, extended appointment with a health care professional to review the diagnosis and hear recommendations. A better understanding of your loved one’s prognosis will assist in developing a plan to address needs. You may also wish to consult with other professionals, such as a geriatric social worker or occupational therapist, in assessing daily care needs at home.

Do Your Homework. Knowledge can empower you as you begin your journey as a family caregiver. Fortunately, with internet access and community libraries, accessing information is much easier now. Find a medium that works best for you-whether it’s books, brochures, videos, or the internet. Don’t try to become an overnight expert by “cramming” information. Take time to study to learn more about your loved one’s condition and prognosis. Compile a reference library of materials that you can easily access at home as questions arise.

Devise An Action Plan. Many older people with chronic and long term illnesses have a wide variety of needs, and it is easy for a caregiver to become overwhelmed. Once you know your loved one’s prognosis, make a list of priorities. Safety precautions should top the list, especially if your family member is frail or has cognitive problems. Treatment options, financial and legal planning, and supervision of care needs must be addressed. By taking time to plan ahead, you will feel increasingly competent and in control. Dividing needs into manageable tasks prevents caregivers from feeling overwhelmed. And whenever possible, take time to include your loved one in this decision making process to maintain their personal dignity.

Do A Resource Survey. Becoming a family caregiver can be daunting, but there may be more help than you realize. Take time to explore what’s available in your community to support your efforts. Investigate respite programs, adult day care options, home health services, and even technology for the home. You might even identify “hidden helpers” around you- clergymen, pharmacists, librarians, social workers- who can assist. Are grant programs available? Your local Area Agency on Aging is a great place to start.

And if your loved one is a veteran or a spouse of someone who served in the military, call your county Veterans Office for information about benefits such as Aid and Attendance to supplement the care you provide. Don’t forget to check out local support groups; attending meetings can soothe isolation and empower you to connect and learn with others on the same caregiver journey. Online support group options may also be available.

Learn How To Ask For Help. It’s an art and a skill that takes practice to develop. With your assessment in hand, make a list of tasks needed. Which ones can you do alone? Which require outside help? Some of your loved one’s needs, such as medical care or legal arrangements, may require a high level of professional expertise. Most tasks can be handled with help from family, friends, and neighbors. Divide and delegate. In fact, it’s therapeutic for family and friends to be given an opportunity to help in a tangible way. Be specific and reasonable in your requests.

Recognize the Role Of Family. Your loved one’s journey may affect the journey of other family members, who each may react differently to changes. The need for care may complicate family dynamics, or it can be a rallying point. Try to be patient and understanding, recognizing personalities, strengths, and limitations. It may be necessary to negotiate boundaries and limits, but be gentle and firm. Include other family members where possible, and help them navigate the transitions your loved one is making.

Remember Your Own Well Being. Becoming a caregiver is a journey that requires adjustment and personal growth, and even some sacrifice. It’s a natural reaction to be angry, depressed, sad, or scared when your loved one begins to need increased attention and supervision. Take time to embrace your own feelings, but also assess your own strengths and limitations. It may help to sort through your emotions by enlisting someone you trust- a friend, a clergyman, a counselor- to guide you and provide objective support. Family caregivers often opt to deny their own needs in favor of their loved ones. That’s a strategy that can lead to exhaustion. Make a conscious effort to find opportunities for rest and relaxation where you can re-energize yourself to avoid caregiver stress and burnout. Sometimes even a few minutes of diversion and recreation can get you through the day.

Being a family caregiver is one of the most important jobs in society. It can be daunting work and a tremendous burden at times. Even so, having the opportunity to help your loved one to age in place can also foster great blessings. By being intentional in planning and organizing a strategy, you can assure that caregiving is one of the most rewarding jobs you’ll ever have.

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