Becoming a caregiver, whether gradually or suddenly, can be stressful and overwhelming-- especially if you're trying to hold down another job and/or raise a family. No one trains you on what to do or what is expected of you, so there's a lot of trial-and-error-style learning that will happen on the job as you navigate this new world of assisting with daily activities.
Welcome to the caregivers club! It can be an insecure and uncertain place, but we've mapped out some steps to get you newbies started off on the right foot. Here are eight steps that first-time caregivers should be aware of.
In order to get a good idea of what you're walking into and what you'll be dealing with on a daily basis, it's important to talk to the care-recipient, as well as their friends and family. This will establish a baseline of what's been going on and for how long and what kind of care will be required. AARP says it is important to listen to and respect the care recipient's "preferences, values, and wishes for things that matter, from health to finances."
Get a comprehensive medical assessment of the care recipient's physical and mental health from their doctors in order to diagnose any underlying issues, identify risks, and discuss treatment options. In addition, a care assessment (sometimes referred to as a geriatric or needs assessment) will help determine the level and types of care needed. According to Next Avenue, "Some hospitals, Area Agencies on Aging, city or county agencies, Caregiver Resource Centers, or other government or private organizations offer consultation and assessments specifically designed for older people for little, if any, cost."
Knowledge is power. Do your homework on the progression of any disease or disability the care-receiver has been diagnosed with, as well as their medications and any medical interventions. Research online, read books and pamphlets and talk with professionals and others in similar situations. File away pertinent info for reference.
As the Family Caregiver Alliance notes, "Getting information and training will help you feel confident about the many tasks you perform." Learn first aid, stroke signs, and symptoms, and Next Avenue points out that you may require "special training in the use of assistive equipment and managing difficult behavior."
A wealth of resources are available for caregivers. Community organizations, such as your local Agency on Aging (AAA) can provide helpful information; suggest services such as meal delivery, transportation, or home repairs; and direct you to area senior centers and/or day care programs.
Map out short and long term needs in order to formulate a care plan. While some caregiving tasks are time-consuming; others are difficult. Determine what the person receiving care is still capable of doing on their own and what tasks will require assistance.
According to Caregiver.org, caregiving responsibilities often include buying groceries, preparing meals, cleaning, doing laundry, driving, help with personal hygiene and/or getting dressed, dealing with doctors, paying bills/handling finances and other legal matters, and more. Determine what you are willing and able to do, and outsource the rest when possible. Remember this plan is fluid and will change over time as the care receiver's needs progress.
Once you've determined what you need help with, rally the troops. Between community services, friends, family, and neighbors, determine who can assist with what and when. You may need to look into hiring a professional for tasks like lawn care. Make a list of the people you've enlisted along with their contact info. An email group or online scheduling tools like the Lotsa Helping Hands care calendar can help coordinate and keep track of appointments and task assignments.
Safety-proof the care receiver's environment as much as possible. This may involve making adjustments to the home to accommodate their needs, such as installing grab bars to help with balance in the bathroom or making the home wheelchair accessible. Next Avenue warns of threats such as sharp objects, poisons, and tripping and fire hazards. They also advise monitoring food and medication consumption.
Who cares for the caregiver? That's your job too. Caregivers are susceptible to isolation, stress, boredom, burnout, and compromised health. According to Next Avenue, caregivers are more likely "to be at risk for depression, heart disease, high blood pressure and other chronic illnesses, even death" than non-caregivers.
It's easy to put your own needs on the backburner, but be sure to "fill your own cup" as they say. Take time for yourself, exercise, and don't skip your own regular checkups! "Self-care" doesn't have to mean a spa weekend--it can be as simple as keeping yourself fed and well-rested.
Connect with others in similar situations online or in-person. Support groups can provide "social and emotional support and practical information and advice" as well as a "safe and confidential place...to vent frustrations, share ideas and learn new caregiving strategies" according to Next Avenue. Additionally, local government agencies, faith-based organizations, or employers' programs may provide support programs and services such as counseling, respite, and home modifications.