As more and more Americans age, much of the responsibility for their care is falling on family members. But much like parenting itself, there is no manual or course you can take on how to be a good caregiver.
Each patient is different. Each caregiver unique. Each family dynamic idiosyncratic. Health, finances, personalities, resources all factor in to what type of care ought to be given and what type of care can be given.
But along the way, experts see some of the same caregiving mistakes being made over and over again. The results can be devastating: depression, anxiety, guilt, financial ruin, even legal jeopardy. If you're just starting out on your caregiving journey, take a moment to review some of the bigger and more frequent mistakes listed below. Both you and your loved one will benefit.
1. Lack of legal and financial preparation. While everyone is healthy, it's important that parents appoint someone with the power of attorney and/or create an advanced care directive. A living will ensures that family members can manage financial accounts and make care decisions in a timely manner, without legal or financial impediments. An advanced care directive outlines your parent's wishes and care preferences and will alleviate a lot of the stress of decision making from family members. Make sure copies are given to all designated family caregivers.
2. Not understanding range of care options, before making a decision. Before care decisions are made or ignored, you need to understand what your options are, which options suit your loved one's needs best and available funding sources. Does your parent need assisted living, nursing care or in-home care? Part-time or full time care? What funding options are available from Medicare, Medicaid, the VA, the state, insurance and charities. There are many different ways to pay, exhaust all options before making a decision.
3. Not taking care of yourself. Managing someone else's life, witnessing their cognitive and physical decline, agitation, aggression, repetitiveness, incontinence, paranoia, wandering or sleeplessness often results in stress, anxiety, depression and even burnout. Study after study has shown that in order to provide the best care possible, you need to perform optimally yourself. While easier said than done, it's essential to take some time for yourself. As best you can, try to sleep well, eat well, exercise and continue socializing with friends and family.
4. Treating parents like children. Even though your parents may be experiencing cognitive decline, unless they're deemed incompetent, you need to respect their preferences and decisions, even if you don't agree with them. This isn't just a legal obligation, it's a moral imperative. Include your parents in the decision making process. Give them access to information. Have them attend meetings. Let them ask questions. Listen to their concerns and preferences and try to solve for them. Be an advocate for their wishes.
5. Not asking for help. You're not supposed to know how to do this. Ask as many questions as you can. Tap into as many resources as you can, including doctors, nurses, social workers, professional caregivers, financial advisors, lawyers, friends and family. It's hard, nearly impossible and definitely not recommended, to put everything on your own shoulders. See if someone can help with activities of daily living like bathing and toileting. See if you can divide days or responsibilities with a sibling. Don't feel guilty or incompetent for asking for help. You should.
Caring for a parent can be one of the more rewarding experiences of your life. It's a chance to give back to someone who loved, sacrificed and cared for you. It's also an opportunity to grow and deepen your relationship with your parents. At the same time, the day to day management can be difficult and challenging to say the least. Give yourself the best chance to do the best job by avoiding some of the most common caregiving mistakes.