Caregiving Needs to Be a Team Effort

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You've probably heard the old saying, "there's no I in team," meaning that on a team everyone works together toward a common goal. Unfortunately there is an "I" in caregiving and that "I" can represent many challenges that caregivers face daily: Isolation. Infuriation. Irritation. Imperfection. And at times, seemingly Impossible. During my years of caregiving, one incident in particular made me realize that in order for caregivers to keep their sanity, they have to eliminate that "I" by building a support team. What happened that led to my epiphany?

One cold winter day years ago, Julie, my mail carrier, knocked on my door much earlier than she'd normally pass by my home. Julie had been delivering the mail on her route a couple of blocks over when she noticed movement behind the snow-banked sidewalk across the street. Thinking it may be an injured animal, she investigated.

What she discovered was my 80-year-old neighbor, Joe, crawling toward home. Joe had taken off on one of his impulsive walks to an old downtown tavern without considering the lack of sure footing. On a good day, with dry cement under his feet, Joe shuffled with an occasional sideways wobble. Put ice and snow underfoot and his walk was an invitation for disaster. Miraculously, Joe was cold but unharmed, except that he couldn't get back on his feet. Julie helped him up and took him home, then came looking for me, since she knew I was his primary caregiver.

As Joe's caregiver, I expressed my gratitude to Julie, then went next door to Joe's house and spent a fair amount of time scolding him. He knew I'd give him a ride wherever he wanted to go, and he could afford a taxi when he chose to be independent. Joe responded with his characteristic shrug. He stubbornly ignored my advice.

I developed a new awareness and gratitude that day for people like Julie who are part of our elders' regular routine. Postal carriers have been known to call the police when they see too much mail piling up in someone's box. UPS and Fed-ex delivery people, as well as others who run routes, have been known to find assistance for people when they notice something amiss. People who deliver Meals On Wheels are trained to watch signs that something is wrong in the world of their meal recipients. All of these routine delivery folks are, often unknowingly, part of an early care team.

During my two decades of caregiving for multiple elders, I was the primary person responsible to look after my elders' needs. Whether it was for emergencies, shopping, medical appointments, medications or handling complaints, I was there. However, within the framework of my care, there were many others who helped me and my care receivers. There was always a care team, albeit an ever changing one, depending on the elders' needs.

Advantages of a care team

  • Family members, when willing, are the obvious backup for the primary caregiver.
  • Long-time friends, neighbors who may notice something "off" about a senior's routine, senior center friends and church groups can all be part of the un-official team.
  • A variety of medical people helping our elders means that there are more people to suggest potentially helpful changes in care procedure. The medical people included the primary physician, a physical and/or mental therapist, nurses, CNAs, social workers or others. Since they will all have a different background, they can often bring a new perspective to caregiving.
  • Other family caregivers can be amazingly helpful. Whether we find them in a support meeting, visiting loved ones at the nursing home, or sign on to an online care forum, we should be able to receive insightful support from others in similar situations.

Finding a care team

  • Some families share the care, while others do their best to distance themselves from any family caregiving. However, give family members a chance to contribute if they can. Perhaps you, as the primary caregiver, can ask for a specific task. Often people feel overwhelmed by care needs, or else simply don't know what kind of care to offer, so they do nothing.
  • Friends can help. True, some "friends" basically disappear when a family becomes shouldered with responsibility due to an ill loved one. However, as with family members, give friends a chance to help without the threat of taking over their lives. You can request a certain favor and see how the request is received. You don't want to wear out your friends, so ask for help sparingly.
  • Treat doctors, nurses, aides at facilities, social workers and other professionals with respect and courtesy. Ask for advice when appropriate. If you consider them part of the care team when you are at home with your loved one, they are more likely to welcome you to the care team if your elder needs facility care later on.
  • Find your state website by typing the name of your state into your computer search engine. Follow that by .gov, such as Wisconsin.gov or Virginia.gov. You should then be redirected to your state's official website. Once there, search under words such as "aging", "department on aging" and "caregiving". By doing so, you should find an abundance of links leading you to local assistance. This assistance can range from government programs such as your Area Agency on Aging to local respite care and caregiver support groups. The people you contact through these links may lead to others who will eventually become part of your growing care team.

If we broaden our thinking and do some research we can become educated in available resources. By touching base with different groups and agencies, we should find that we needn't handle everything alone.

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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7 Comments

I have siblings who are either unwilling or unable to assist, and be part of the "team". They work or live a fur piece away. My children wont help. The only team I have is the facility that she lives in, and I feel that the caregivers there don't give her enuf care as they should. I have discussed this with facilities directors. She had a mild stroke last year, but no one noticed it until late, and that was me. She has chronic UTI which causes mental aberrations as well. Basically I AM the team. When I let others know of my trubbles I get, "Ah gee that's too bad, well hang in there." So, there you are, a one person team doing a three person job. "We the unwilling being led by the unknowing are doing the impossible for the ungrateful. We done so much for so long we are now capable of doing anything with nothing."
It would always be the ideal situation to have a "team" to care for an ill loved one. Unfortunately, some will always be "too busy" to help. Personally, I don't understand how you can be too busy to help care for your own parent but I guess to each their own. I, myself, am grateful for the experience and the chance to get to know my dad as someone other than my parent. As for my sibs, I no longer feel I have anything in common with them. If they couldn't see that I needed help and took the opportunity to step in to give me a break, I don't have much use for them. My friends were more helpful than even dad's own children. How sad is that? But such is life. I did my best for dad and he frequently told me how much he appreciated it. My response? I always told him I was glad I had the chance to do what I could to make his life more comfortable. He was always so good to me, always there for me - I wouldn't have had it any other way. But to those just starting the journey, my best advice is try first for family but if you get no support, go to home health and try to find one or two caregivers who clicks. It can take some time but when it happens, your loved one is not only happier but you have some time to yourself. I wish the best for all ~ Kuli
id advise anyone to not treat the oldtimer like a kid. they are old and wise and dont need to be patronized. my sister tried to care for my mom for a few weeks but she treated mom like a kid and mom ran her off.. back to the subject, you can ask siblings for help but that doesnt mean youll get it.. they seem to resent your close relationship with the aged parent..