Becoming a Caregiver

April 1, 2014

Becoming a Caregiver

Caregiving is one of the most difficult, yet potentially rewarding roles we can ever play. It is most often done for a parent or spouse, but could be for anyone you care about. You can be a caregiver without living in the same house or even the same state as your loved one. If you help make decisions in your loved one’s care, you are a caregiver. The role is filled with responsibility and charged with emotion. I had years of social work and counseling experience, but when it came to my own parents, my education, insight and experience seemed so inadequate in dealing with my closest loved ones. I wish there was a six-month course offered to potential caregivers, but since there is not, here are some things to consider.

Planning ahead makes the process easier for everyone involved. It is vital to get Advance Directives (Durable Power of Attorney, HealthCare Surrogate and Living Will) in place before they are needed. Many people mistakenly believe that in signing these papers they are giving over immediate control of these matters. The documents simply state their wishes in the event of incapacity. Without them, crisis situations will be much more difficult. Once your loved one signs these documents, you should not question their choices. At this stage, their choices are becoming limited. Respect their wishes in this vital area.

Never promise your loved one that he or she will never live in a nursing home. You cannot see the future and there are conditions that make it impossible to care for them at home. There are circumstances when the most loving thing you can do is to seek the help of a skilled nursing facility. If you have promised never to do it, you will feel undue guilt if the need does arise. Promise only that you’ll find the best care possible.

Conduct your own research on the subject of caregiving and find a support group. Become familiar with available resources in your area. Websites from trusted agencies (AARP, Florida Council on Aging, etc.) are valuable tools. Begin making relationships with key support professionals now, before there is a need. If you don’t know what services are available, ask a physician or social worker in your area.

How do you know when it is time to step in? Here is a list of some common signs that additional help is needed.

  • Decline in grooming or housekeeping, struggling with tasks they used to do often
  • Unopened mail, unpaid bills, etc.
  • Decline in socialization
  • Inability to keep up with medications appropriately
  • Safety issues, i.e. fire hazards, frequent falls, wandering, frequent fender benders, etc.

For any of the above issues, it is good to communicate these changes with your loved one’s primary care physician. Sharing your observations with the doctor will help him determine the best course of treatment. If you don’t live close to your loved one, you may enlist the help of your loved one’s neighbors who care enough to inform you when they observe any of these signs.

Overreaction is never a productive part of any caregiver’s plan. It causes us to make hasty decisions that could end up harming our loved one and their quality of life. When noticing a decline in your loved one, don’t automatically begin making large changes. Sometimes all that is needed is a change in medication or some additional services that can be delivered to their home, while they remain otherwise independent. Replace overreaction with patience, understanding and careful planning. In order to plan wisely, you must educate yourself on the issues you are dealing with. Large sweeping changes are much more stressful to older people, so whenever safely possible, change should be implemented gradually.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, indecision is not helpful either. Many people are so afraid of making the wrong decision, or of hurting Mom or Dad’s feelings that they don’t do anything at all. While understandable, this is potentially more harmful than moving too quickly, as your loved one may be at risk if left without intervention. Thoughtful intervention is actually the most loving thing that you can do if your loved one is no longer capable of taking care of themselves or their affairs.

Always prepare your loved one for changes that are coming. Some families admit a parent to a nursing home without telling them ahead of time. This unfair tactic leaves the parent at risk for depression, illness and falls, and ensures that they will have difficulty adjusting. Even if you do not think your parent will understand what you are saying, tell them anyway. Explain it gently and talk about it as often as they need.

Caregiving is never easy, but if you prepare, build a support system for yourself and give your parent the respect and dignity that they desire, it can be a precious time in both of your lives.

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