Time Management Strategies for Caregivers

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Don’t let the title scare you, folks. I’m not presenting a “system” here. Personally, I’ve never seen a chart or graph designed to help me organize my life that I didn’t intentionally ignore. “Systems” designed by experts never take my life or personality into consideration. Instead, they seem like cookie-cutter solutions intended only for organizing some dream life.

That being said, tips and thoughts from people whose experiences have closely mirrored mine, in at least some aspects, have been generally welcome. I like real life stories, and I like knowing how people make their lives work. If ideas are presented to me that way, I can gauge the flexibility of their “system” and see how it fits with their personality and lifestyle. This makes suggestions sound more authentic and less like demands that I “shape up” and act like other people. I can then learn from their experiences, take what works for me and ignore the rest free of guilt.

So, please take my suggestions in this manner. I’ve discussed some ideas with other caregivers, including those who care for elders and one man who cares for a child with disabilities. Our time management techniques aren’t that different. Although caregivers and their situations are unique, when we care for vulnerable people, we are surprisingly alike.

Expect the Unexpected

For me, the need to be prepared for anything is mandatory. During my heaviest caregiving years, I was raising two children (one with multiple health problems), caring for multiple elders (several of whom lived in a nearby nursing home), and working full-time.

Back then, a call to my work phone could mean that one of my elders was at the emergency room or that my son was very ill. It could be as simple as a quick errand or as serious as making the choice to begin hospice care. I must say that a ringing phone can still, at times, be a scary thing for me. Knowing that I was somewhat prepared for an emergency did have a calming effect to some degree. It still does. Here’s a little sample of my plan. Borrow and improvise to figure out what works for you.

My employer allowed me to take vacation time by the hour, so I hoarded every bit I could for use during emergencies and for medical appointments for those in my care.

I shopped as though I was preparing for a disaster, buying multiples of anything my loved ones could possibly want. They always seemed to need things taken care of immediately, and something inside of me made me think I had to deliver. I may have been a bit excessive about this since I threw away three bottles of my mother’s favorite makeup after she passed.

I kept food around that my sons could make for themselves, should I be called away to tend to one of the elders. Again, I often threw out over-stocked items, but having certain foreseeable needs met for as many people as possible meant I had less on my plate when something unexpected popped up. I felt better prepared and less frantic.

I filled prescriptions as soon as the insurance companies allowed. This overlap eliminated problems that would inevitably arise when one person needed a prescription filled, but I was too tied up with something or someone else to run and take care of it.

Techniques for Planning and Prioritizing Your Projects

Many of us have a to-do list that is so long and overwhelming that we don’t even know where to start. This is sometimes called analysis paralysis. Say your mom wants you to organize her closet, but your kids need a school project finished and only you can help. Your employer wants you to get rolling on a “fresh new idea,” while the blank Medicaid application forms for your dad are sitting on your desk at home. All of these projects are important and must get done. Where do you even start?

  • Write it down. That may seem obvious, but it does help. Make an initial list, but don’t worry about perfection or order yet. Just jot down everything that needs to get done so nothing is overlooked.
  • Prioritize. If you have a great deal on your initial list, make a second one that ranks the individual tasks in order of importance. Tasks with hard deadlines (the kids’ school project) and that have a lot riding on them (your employment) should be placed at the top of your list. You may find that some of the more trivial tasks don’t even make it to this secondary list, which is good!
  • Bite off chunks. Realize that tasks don’t have to be done completely in one pass. Dad’s Medicaid forms need to be filled out accurately, but you don’t have to do it all in one sitting or even one day. Sometimes breaking a task into smaller steps can help you achieve a lot more over time.
  • Learn that good enough is good enough. Each and every task you attempt doesn’t have to be perfect, either. Expecting to do everything perfectly is my biggest time waster. I can’t get started if I think I have to do it all to perfection. Mom’s closet is a perfect example of something that can be done imperfectly. Just do enough to make her feel that you are tending to her needs, then let the rest go.
  • Lower your standards. Normal daily standards often fall by the wayside while caregiving. This is acceptable. You are likely working for several people here, so give yourself a break. The house doesn’t have to be spotless, you don’t have to have a homecooked meal every single night, etc. Rarely has dusty furniture or a frozen pizza killed anyone.
  • Find shortcuts that make you feel better. For example, a quick neatening up, even if it means tossing stuff in a closet, can help some people de-clutter their living spaces and their minds. A quick pass around the house can ensure that your home is a source of comfort rather than distress. Let the true de-cluttering and deep cleaning wait until your life is less busy and running a little smoother.
  • Less is more. Try to help others learn this, too. Getting rid of stuff and not replacing it can be freeing. I know this is a hard concept to pass on to someone who can’t let go of anything or an elder who is now forced to give up so much. If you live your life with this philosophy without trying to impose it on others, you will reap the benefits and you may find some of that mentality gets passed along.
  • Get help. Remember that you are only one person. You can’t do it all, and some support can make a huge difference. Delegate tasks to your spouse, your kids, a friend who offers to help, or even someone you hire. Routine work, like housekeeping and grocery shopping are excellent tasks to outsource. A cleaning service or grocery delivery service can check these things off your list and free up time for more important responsibilities that you need handle personally. In-home care is an excellent option for help because professional caregivers can provide a variety of flexible services, including errands AND hands-on care.

Taking Care of Yourself

In a way, time management is a way of taking care of ourselves. Efficiency in doing for others can actually leave us more time for self-care. If we don’t prioritize our physical and mental health, we’ll become less efficient at all the other tasks on our plates. This can be as simple as taking a 20-minute nap in the afternoons. Frankly, self-care should be first on our “time management” list. I thought of that, actually, but I figured everyone would laugh and quit reading!

Do try it, however. Most of us are better people and better caregivers when we have a little time to relax and do something we enjoy. Working ourselves to the point of caregiver burnout won’t help anyone. If we look at our to-do list, we can surely find something to move lower on the list so that we can scoot up our own medical appointments or mental health breaks a few spots. If we do that, the other tasks will fall into a more realistic order, or even get so low on the list that we can let them drop off altogether.

Good luck with your list, and please feel free to share your own time-saving ideas in the comments below.

Carol Bradley Bursack

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Over the span of two decades, author, columnist, consultant and speaker Carol Bradley Bursack cared for a neighbor and six elderly family members. Her experiences inspired her to pen, "Minding Our Elders: Caregivers Share Their Personal Stories," a portable support group book for caregivers.

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12 Comments

The best tip I can give if you are caring for someone with dementia is learn to say "no" and then evaluate whether or not to say yes.

Do I actually need to drive to the store? No - there is an online service that will deliver in my area.

Do I actually need to drive to the doctors office for a weekly blood draw - maybe not. Ask if there is a draw station operated by a lab nearer your house and ask your doctor about using it....they can fax the req.

Do I actually need to give my loved one a full bath every day? Maybe not - I might do just as well with a no-rinse sponge bath that is less stressful on both of us

Do I really need to listen to other people's problems rather than finding friends who listen to me - NO! I am already a caregiver - we are friends which means it is a two way street.

Do I really need to eat standing up in the kitchen? No

Do I really need to come to this site for a daily lift and inspiration from Carol and other caregivers? YES!!!!

Thank you for this article
Gosh, this is a great article. My mom and I decluttered last year, and it gave us such a lift to have more space. (Plus, we decided to have a garage sale and made $600 in two days).

Here are a few more ideas I have picked up through the years:

- Keep a variety of get well cards and birthday cards on hand, so you don't end up making a special trip to the store when you need one.

- Call stores ahead to find out if they have items you need, and take advantage of online shopping when it's practical.

- When on the phone, use the speakerphone feature or a headset so your hands are free to do other things. (Avoid holding the phone to your ear till someone gets back on the phone 15 minutes later!)

- Cook less often, make twice as much, and have leftovers.

- Buy more clothes (especially towels and undergarments), so you can wash clothes less often using bigger loads.

- Consistently look for ways to combine trips. If a doctor's office tells you they can see you on a specific date, instead of just taking the one they give you, check your calendar. See if they can see you on a day when you already have plans to be in town.

- Create a shelved area in the basement for non-perishable foods (cans, boxes, etc.) that you can buy in bulk when there are good sales.

- (If you live where it gets cold in the winter) Stock up on things like cat litter, Kleenex, and toilet paper on sale during the spring, summer, and fall months, so you don't have to deal with lugging this stuff home when it's -20 degrees and the wind is 35 mph.

- Have an assigned place in your house for things like glasses and car keys; avoid spending 10 minutes looking for them when you want to leave the house.

- When you run into a problem that requires reading an owner's manual (oven, dishwasher, microwave), make a note of the resolution you found and put it near the front cover--or circle it in the manual-- because you're likely to have the same problem again after you've long forgotten how you fixed it last time.

- If you lose an owner's manual, don't despair, just go online. Most companies these days post their owner's manuals on their website. Make sure you know your model number.

Best wishes!
This is just a great article. The only thing I could add would be:
1 - Be as organized as you can possibly be. I was not an terribly organized person until I become a caregiver. It has made every aspect of my life easier
2 - With that said, just know your day will not go as planned. And let it go. Getting upset because of unplanned change, will be of no help to you our the one for whom you are caring.
3 - Use the Internet as often as possible for shopping. The shipping cost may be a bit more, but it will help you to plan ahead and will save you time.
4 - The most important tip for time management, do what you can and let the rest go. Don't beat yourself up. It won't make your situation easier