Football season is upon us! While I was watching a game over the weekend, I was struck by the similarities between football and caregiving. I watched the quarterback dodging tackles and doing everything in his power to avoid getting sacked. It’s hard to lead the team when you are running for your life. It’s hard to even keep your wits about you. My favorite team’s quarterback is very skilled at his job, but even he has challenging game days. As a family caregiver, I can relate.

When you are someone’s primary caregiver, you are the leader of the team. The success or failure of this journey rests on your shoulders, and it’s a heavy responsibility. Your team consists of the person needing care, doctors, nurses, accountants, lawyers, family members, and outside help. The game is keeping a home (or two, if your care recipient doesn’t live with you) clean and intact, managing prescription medications, meeting special dietary needs, paying bills, organizing legal and medical documents, and handling surprises and health issues that arise along the way.

Of course, the clock is always running and your opponents vary from day to day. Today, you could be up against your loved one’s difficult dementia behaviors. Tomorrow, you might be on the phone going head to head with the insurance company or the bank. The next day, you may be trying to coordinate and motivate your team members when they just can’t agree on a play.

Care teams are very complicated, and they don’t always operate as a unified force. In fact, they usually don’t. Quarterbacks are often hailed as the stars of the team, but they wouldn’t get far without the other players. The same is true for primary caregivers. Imagine the quality of care you would provide with no team in place. That means no family support, no outside assistance, no communication with doctors, no legal planning, and no asking for help. I’m betting some people reading this can very well imagine, because many caregivers never set up a team! It may be tempting to handle everything yourself; you know you’ll get most things done and done correctly. But the truth is nobody can or should do it all by themselves.

It’s certainly not easy to get a good team in place, let alone a great team. Just like in football, care team rosters are constantly changing. If your loved one’s doctor doesn’t seem very knowledgeable about treating older patients, then a switch to a geriatrician is definitely in order. If a home care aide isn’t meeting expectations or handling their responsibilities, then it’s time to contact the home care agency and request a replacement. Honing your team takes time, energy, persistence, clarity, coaching and flexibility.

Like in the stadium, there are a lot of spectators in caregiving. People on the sidelines observe your efforts and either cheer you on or criticize your performance. The best players stay focused on the task at hand and the end goal rather than others’ input. Pressure is a given with caregiving, but in order to succeed, you must drown out the noise of the crowd. Surround yourself with cheerleaders, fans and experienced coaches and remember that critics have no place on your care team.

Caregiving requires you to be assertive about your loved one’s needs. In many cases, you’ll need to trust a teammate who has experiences and knowledge that you do not as another set of hands. It takes strength to recognize that you need assistance and then ask for/accept help. This role calls upon you when you think you have nothing left, but you find out you do. Caregiving requires you to say “I love you” when you are the most frustrated and want to throw in the towel. It demands that you persevere in times of adversity. It requires that you be the ultimate leader.

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Setting up your care team early on in the game will prevent caregiver burnout and save your physical and emotional health. It will ensure that you and your loved one are backed by a well-rounded group of people who can help you anticipate and handle all kinds of challenges. The right team could even save your life. I know, because I tried to handle caregiving alone and I almost lost my life. I learned my lesson and put a care team in place. I learned to work with them and trust that they would be there for me.

Our season lasted for six years and consisted of 24/7 care. Even though there were countless ups and downs, we showed up and played our best every day. We worked cooperatively as a team toward the goal of providing excellent care. We didn’t have to be perfect; we just had to give 100 percent. When our season ended, we knew that we had played our hearts out and given our all to someone who needed help. When all was said and done, we felt like Super Bowl champions.