If you’re taking care of an aging parent, you will likely face days when the tasks seem overwhelming. By acting strategically, however, you can ease the burden. In honor of National Family Caregivers Month, here are a few pointers to make your life easier.
Tap Community Resources
Your support system may center on family and friends, but it’s also critical, say experts, to tap every possible resource. Fortunately, most communities have offices dedicated to supporting older adults and their families with referral, informational, and other help. Since the Older Americans Act debuted in 1965, Congress has funneled trillions of federal dollars into state and area agencies on aging to provide an array of community and individual programs. Often in combination with other state and local funds, the money facilitates partnerships with area service providers to help seniors and their caregivers cope with all manner of aging issues. By checking with your local office on aging, chances are very good that you’ll be able to connect directly with the resources you need or at least with other groups that offer them. “Seeking out your county office is a great starting point for navigating local resources that are available,” says Meg Stoltzfus, a lifespan service manager in the Office of Work, Life, and Engagement at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland.
Strut the Small Stuff
There are many aspects to staying organized, but taking a few small steps can keep things under control. Although you likely can craft a list of your own, Amy Goyer, a family and caregiving expert for AARP, suggests a few starters: Focus on one task at a time to avoid procrastination. Use paperless statements and online billing to eliminate paperwork. Embrace technology of all sorts since it can streamline your world. If you’re smart phone savvy, for instance, take advantage of user-friendly apps to help track records, share schedules, and keep your caregiving circle informed and engaged. Even though you have options, Goyer recommends three: CareZone, CaringBridge, and Lotsa Helping Hands.
Locate via a Locator
Although identifying area resources is a logical first step, don’t be shy about going national. Stoltzfus, for instance, routinely recommends Aging Life Care Association, a nationwide association of nurses, social workers, and other practitioners dedicated to the delivery of high-quality health care for elderly and disabled adults. With expertise in a variety of areas key to aging well, these geriatric care managers serve as both guides and advocates for families with various resource needs. To find an appropriate professional in your community, visit www.aginglifecare.org. “This is a fantastic resource, particularly when you’re providing care long distance,” Stoltzfus says. “It’s a way to find an extra set of hands, get resource ideas, or just provide care coordination that’s difficult long distance.”
Hire a Personal Assistant
Celebrities aren’t the only people who can benefit from a Gal Friday. Hiring a personal assistant by the hour to run errands in a pinch can free you up to concentrate elsewhere. Goyer, for instance, employs a concierge to assist her with tasks not directly related to her 93-year-old father’s Alzheimer’s care, but critical to her schedule nonetheless. Whether that involves taking her to the airport, sorting her stacks of mail, or doing whatever needs to be done at the moment, her assistant takes over the minutia so she can focus on the bigger picture. “I can hire Debbie for two hours,” says Goyer, “and she gets more done than I would get done in a week.”
Chart Your Requests
You may be missing willing volunteers because they just don’t know what needs to be done. Carol Abaya, MA, a nationally recognized expert on aging and elder/parent care issues, suggests creating a simple chart by dividing a piece of paper in three parts vertically to sort out your options. In the first column, list all the things your elder charge can do. In the middle column, add those things that require some help. Fill the third column with those tasks that he or she can’t do at all. On a second paper, note your resources, whether that includes individual siblings, agencies, or others from the community. Once you’ve identified the possibilities, match your needs with volunteers and let them know. “Many times a family member will say, ‘What can I do?’ and the primary caregiver really doesn’t know,” she says. “This is one way of dividing the chores.”
Get Legal Control
Being authorized to pay the bills and handle other business transactions are critical in ensuring someone’s safety and security. If you anticipate that your elderly parent won’t be able to care for his or her own financial or legal affairs, you need to act as quickly as possible to ensure that you can do so. Obviously, there has to be trust between the two of you, but you want the proper documentation to write checks, manage assets, and make other decisions in your family member’s best interests. That likely will involve signing a power-of-attorney. “People are often afraid that if they give a child a power-of-attorney, they’re going to lose the power to take care of themselves,” says Abaya. “But it only comes into play when they can’t handle those chores.”
After discovering that funds had been embezzled from her father, Polly Shoemaker, RN, BSN, MBA, the director of clinical systems at St. John’s Hospital in Tulsa, Oklahoma, was more than willing to get the ball rolling when he asked, “Polly, how can you protect me?” The two of them not only drew up a power-of-attorney, but also put her name on a new checking account, updated his will, and made sure that correct beneficiaries were listed on his portfolio assets. Even though being her dad’s eyes and ears on such matters was draining, Shoemaker wanted to ensure that he had signed everything pertinent so she had license and direction. “When he said to me, ‘Polly, I just want to do what’s best for you,’” says Shoemaker, “I told him, ‘Dad, it’s not about me. If you tell me what you want done, I need it in writing because we can’t go on word of mouth.’”
Practice a Little Jujitsu
Achieving progress acceptable to you and the person who needs you may require changing your approach. For starters, experts suggest making sure you make decisions with an elder, rather than just for him or her. Obviously, the dynamic will change depending on the mental and physical capabilities of the elder in your charge. Yet you need to honor this person’s opinions at the same time you pace the conversation to reflect where he or she is at that moment.
For instance, when Abaya was taking care of her own ailing mother’s real estate business, she quickly learned to limit her inquiries to one or three questions per hospital visit, just enough for the woman to process. She also made it a practice to never hire anyone without letting both parents vet the individual first. “Too often sandwich generation caregivers make decisions for an elder that are not in tune with that person’s likes and dislikes,” she says. “But we have to consider their preferences and values.”
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