Strategies for Getting (and Staying) Organized While Caregiving

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Caring for a vulnerable elder can be rewarding as well as frustrating. It can increase our self-esteem to know that we are helping someone in need, but it can also burden us as we grapple with this difficult task and the fact that we aren’t perfect caregivers. (Hint: No one is.)

Caregiving is a continual learning process and no two situations are identical. But, becoming as organized as possible and consistently trying to stay that way can help us relieve stress and use our time more efficiently. It might seem overwhelming to maintain order in such a hectic situation, but a reasonably small amount of effort applied regularly will prove to be far easier than frantically trying to handle everyday mishaps and especially larger emergencies.

Each person’s organization process is unique as well. What is orderly for one person may be considered a baffling mess in someone else’s eyes. The important thing is to understand what your personal organizational style is and then stick to it. Forcing strategies that do not mesh with your personality, schedule or lifestyle are not likely to be effective over the long term.

Below are some tips that I have used that may help you organize your life as a caregiver. Try them out and use them as inspiration to help you find techniques that fit into your caregiving situation.

Organizing for an Ordinary Day of Caregiving

Most of us have typical daily/weekly/monthly routines we carry out with and for our loved ones. Analyzing and revitalizing these routines can have a huge impact on your efficiency and the amount of time and effort you spend on everything from the most important to the most mundane tasks. Consider some of the following organizational improvements:

  • Create a system for all aspects of medication management. Most caregivers and seniors use some type of medication organizer or pill box that arranges pills by day of the week and/or time of day. This is pretty easy as long as you are able to fully concentrate when filling the box. However, what I find difficult is synchronizing the insurance companies’ authorizations, pharmacy refill dates, a care receiver’s need for their medication and, of course, a caregiver’s busy schedule. Ideally, you should be able to obtain at least a week’s worth of medication in advance for most prescriptions. This reserve is useful in cases of illness, inclement weather or some other issue that may unexpectedly keep you from picking up refills.
    If your loved one takes a number of medications, it can be challenging to keep the timing straight and integrate it into your schedule. I prefer a simple calendar for this task, but there are electronic calendars and other reminders available that can help you track pick-up dates and times. Some states even allow doctors, pharmacies and insurance companies to work with patients to simplify and consolidate refill times so that all prescriptions can be picked up once a month. This is called medication synchronization (med synch) and it can be a time and headache saver for many caregivers. Ask your loved one’s pharmacist if this is an option.
  • Find elder care products to simplify daily activities. Small but useful products and adaptations can help make days more enjoyable for both caregivers and their care recipients. For example, a friend of mine saw the covered plates that hospitals use to keep meals warm and asked where he could purchase one. He ended up getting samples from the hospital and a manufacturer of these items. While this may seem like a small concern, being able to keep food warm for a slow eating senior is a very nice perk.
    As a blogger on elder care, I receive messages about new innovations for elders nearly every day. One of the best I’ve seen is a two-handled mug that offers greater stability, more independence and less opportunity for spills for elders. Keeping your eyes open for gadgets and newly developed products can make a big difference in daily care.
    Think of some recurring issues or annoyances that you encounter in your caregiving routine and search the internet to see if you can find some simple solutions. Special products and do-it-yourself hacks for elder care can be rewarding and possibly minimize the time and effort you spend on certain daily tasks (like reheating food multiple times and cleaning up spills).
  • Preparing for emergencies is part of daily living. This may mean keeping snow cleared from your driveway and having warm clothes handy for you and your loved one. It could also mean keeping a bag packed with supplies and instructions for an alternate caregiver in case you get sick or caught up at work. Think about your loved one’s needs and plan for emergencies and mishaps that you or your loved one may be prone to as well as any environmental factors that are common in your area. More on this in a moment.
  • Keep a written journal of your care receiver’s needs. This shouldn’t take a lot of time if done daily and it could save you time in an emergency. It could also make it far easier to transfer your caregiving duties to someone else should you suddenly be unable or unavailable to provide care. Furthermore, keeping a detailed record of your loved one’s evolving needs and symptoms can be incredibly useful for answering questions during doctor’s appointments.
  • Keep a personal journal for yourself. Journaling can relieve frustration, clarify thoughts and help you set and track goals and aspirations for caregiving and your own life. You may want to treat yourself to a handsome journal of some kind. It needn’t be expensive, but it should be something nice that will encourage you to write. You could even dedicate a folder on your computer to this if you prefer typing instead of writing by hand. Journaling is one way to take inventory of your emotional and physical health, and it can help you decide if you are approaching or have passed the point of burnout. Even if you feel you can’t be honest with anyone else, it is still crucial to be honest with yourself about your limitations.
  • Maintain a dedicated calendar. A calendar specifically used for keeping track of appointments, entertainment, respite care and other engagements concerning your loved one can be very helpful. Some people may find this method of using more than one reference point cumbersome, but it’s all about what works best for you.
    If you happen to be tech-savvy, electronic calendar apps are available that allow you to create entries for separate entities (for example work and personal appointments) but still visualize how they overlap. This same approach can be very useful for keeping your tasks and engagements separate from those of your loved one, yet they’re still integrated and accessible. Another benefit of going digital is the ability to share appointment information and availability with other care team members.
  • Reduce clutter in your life. Yes, I know that seems impossible when your mailbox is stuffed with bills and medical paperwork and the common areas of your house are now home to mobility aids, special cushions, pill bottles, tissues and other supplies that your loved one needs. However, implementing some type of organization early on can save frustration in the event of an emergency, during tax time or simply when walking through the living room. You don’t need a sophisticated system or a pristine living area—just find a balance that makes sense to you. This may be a big undertaking at first if you haven’t picked up in a while, but if you stick with it, you may find that a little bit of clean up each day goes a long way. Sometimes decluttering your physical space can help relieve stress and declutter your mind, too.
  • Anticipate your loved one’s future needs. Unfortunately in elder care, a care receiver isn’t likely to get well. Therefore, it’s beneficial for the entire care team to learn about the care recipient’s medical condition(s), find medical and moral support online or in the community, and research local respite and long-term care options (even if you never intend to use them). Knowing how your loved one’s health may be affected in the future, the amount of care they might need and the care resources available in your community is essential. This knowledge will help you avoid surprises and be prepared for whatever caregiving curveballs are thrown your way.
  • Find a way to do things you enjoy. You may be homebound with your elder, or you may go out to help them in their own home. Either way, you should be able to listen to music you enjoy, read a book, exercise or spend time on the computer with a support group, at a minimum. You also deserve to see friends and enjoy some “me time” on a regular basis. I’m aware that this sounds idealistic to many, but regular self-care is a must to preserve your ability to provide care for others. Getting organized and using your resources more efficiently should free up even a small amount of time here and there. Use it to pamper yourself. Part of preparing for the future is taking the time to prevent burnout and promote your physical and mental wellbeing.

Organizing for a Caregiving Emergency

Caregiving emergencies come in all shapes and sizes. Being organized and prepared can help you tackle small blips and take even the most unexpected accidents in stride. The following steps will ensure you are ready for whatever may lie ahead.

  • Set up back-up care. You may or may not have anyone who can relieve you of your caregiving duties on a regular basis, but you definitely need to have a plan b in place for emergencies. Caregivers are hardly immune to developing their own health issues, and, as much as we try to make caregiving a top priority, other aspects of life can easily get in the way.
    An effective back-up caregiving plan consists of someone who lives nearby and is capable and willing to lend a hand when the unexpected happens. Out-of-state family can be useful resources in some instances, but in an emergency, you need someone who you know can show up and dive in with little to no notice. If your local friends and family are limited, you may need to ask a neighbor if they’d be able to help out in a pinch. It may also behoove you to complete paperwork ahead of time with an in-home care agency and use their services a few times each month to stay on their radar. This will improve the likelihood that you have emergency reinforcements and give you peace of mind knowing that they belong to a company you know and trust. Scrambling to ask or hire someone to care for your loved one at the last minute is hardly ideal. Make a list of all available sources of back-up and keep it handy.
  • Prepare for the most likely emergencies. Does your loved one fall frequently? Do you suffer from migraines? It’s impossible to anticipate every possibility, so focus on preparing for the ones that are most likely to occur. Do your best, of course, to prevent these emergencies, but also have a plan of action ready if you must shift your undivided attention to another family member in need or if you wind up being the one needing help. If any of these scenarios have happened before, then you will have a better idea of what preparations need to be made. Otherwise, do your best to think through the hypothetical situations step by step and do what you can in advance.
  • Create an emergency folder. This folder will be your go-to resource when something goes awry with your loved one. You’ll want to include a current list of medications, identification and insurance information, contact information for physicians and pharmacies, a copy of their medical power of attorney (POA) document, copies of advance directives, etc. In fact, it doesn’t hurt to make a folder for yourself and other family members as well. Far too many caregivers make the mistake of believing they have ample time to get organized, but preparation in emergencies is invaluable. Also, try to store the daily caregiving journal with your loved one’s emergency folder so that up-to-date information is handy as well.
    For a complete guide to creating comprehensive emergency medical folders, read “The Emergency Medical File Every Caregiver Should Create.”

As with most suggestions I’ve made throughout my years of writing for caregivers, I’m simply sharing what has worked for me. I hope that some of these ideas will give you food for thought so that you can organize and simplify your caregiving life. If you have any additional tips of your own that you find helpful, please share them in the comments section 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.

Minding Our Elders

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24 Comments

Suggestion . . . I am handicapped. Use walker. I wear smocks with pockets. Carry mugs with caps in pockets to free up both hands. Put food items in sandwich bags and carry in pockets. Carry wireless phone in pocket. Uses are limitless. A great help to me.
I wear small flat bag, hangs from neck with medical, social security, ID cards, glasses, handicap parking placard and small amount of money for co-pay.
A few of the things I've found that really work for me… re meds: I use CVS because they have an online presence that I can access from my smartphone… I can order refills for Mom just by clicking a couple of boxes; easy to set up and use account; also I use a combined view that lets me order my meds at the same time; CVS also has an auto-fill process so that you don't have to do the routine med ordering; my CVS also delivers (wonderful on a really cold winter day); when my order is ready for pick up, I get a text message (eliminates me having to call to find out if rx is ready)… when I set up Mom's meds into the little strip of daily boxes, I count out loud to make sure I am putting those little pills in the right box because Mom likes to sit with me while I am setting up her meds and hearing me counting reminds her not to talk to me at that moment, otherwise her chatter could distract me and I could make a med error… when we visit the doctor, I make sure her med list is accurate in the dr's computer and after we are done, I get extra copies of the after visit summary (AVS); I keep one copy on her walker basket for quick access if I am not with her (for example, at day care); I also keep a copy of the summary in my purse for all kinds of questions… re notes to her dr, I find it more productive to use the mychart app; it is a way of secure messaging her dr about non-emergent issues; some of the issues I've emailed Mom's dr about: med changes made by other drs, blood pressure or blood sugar readings for several days when we are adjusting meds, and requests for referrals to other specialities; I can email any of her providers anytime I have a few minutes to myself and not have to worry about whether or not her nurse got down everything I wanted the dr to know… re connection with Mom's home care nurse and home care aide, these people can eithet call me or text me to set up arrival times, etc, but I prefer text messaging because it's in writing and that means it is one less thing for me to remember… re important paperwork, I have a small accordian file that I carry in my purse; copies of the AVS, the POA, advance directive and POLST orders;… these are a few of the things that are working for me, of course the rest of my life is a mess, LOL… hope a bit of this helps someone, good luck!
Rigjt now my Dad is still capable of handling all the prescription med details. But this information has prompted me to put a plan in place for me to become versed in all the prescribed meds and the when and how to reorder. I am the live in stay at home professional son/caregiver for mom & pops. The One thing I'm not in charge of thus far is the prescribed med side of things,so thank you for the encouragement and advice.