Wanted: a family caregiver to take full-time care of a "difficult" elder with Alzheimer's disease, diabetes and limited mobility. No pay. No benefits. No rewards. No thanks.
If it were advertised in the classifieds, caregiving is not a job most people would take voluntarily. However, when elderly family members can no longer care for themselves, someone in the family usually steps up to the plate and is unexpectedly catapulted into the role. No planning. No preparation. No one hands you a training manual. No one prepares you for the onslaught of health, emotional, financial and legal challenges that are heading your way.
"We have this concept that people know how to be a caregiver," says Cindy Laverty, a caregiver advocate, founder of The Care Company and The Cindy Laverty caregiving talk show – and a former caregiver herself. "But the reality is there's no PhD for family caregivers. We just dive in blindly."
Lack of preparation can make caregivers feel as if life is spinning out of control – days filled with chaos, disorganization, emotional outbursts, physical injuries and mental anguish. But it doesn't have to be that way. You can make caregiving more tolerable and even rewarding.
Manage Caregiving Like a Business
One way to do so is to treat caregiving like a job – which is what it is. "The more emotion you can remove from the beginning and treat it like a business, the better," Ms. Laverty says. That is not to say that you stop caring or feeling compassion. Rather, look at the big picture and manage caregiving as one critical component of your life. "Running caregiving like a business empowers you and helps you secure a sense of control," Ms. Laverty says. "You wouldn't start a business without thinking it through: getting resources lined up, getting legal documents in place, having a financial plan. Caregiving is no different."
Lay Out a Plan and Analyze All Components
The first step in starting a business is to develop a business plan – a roadmap. Similarly, a solid care plan helps caregivers stay on task, better manage time, be more productive and efficiently accomplish goals.
Brainstorm all the possible scenarios: Managing your parent's finances, safety-proofing the home, getting power of attorney and other legal documents in place, making sure your parent is eating properly, finding transportation to doctor's appointments, coordinating medical care. In business terms, be proactive, rather than reactive.
Establish a Hierarchy
As the "primary caregiver" you are, by default, the CEO. However, that does not mean you do everything yourself. An effective CEO knows how to analyze the situation and delegate, finding the right resources to address needs.
Laverty suggests that when possible, caregivers divide up the duties so the burden doesn't fall to one person. Take into consideration what each person can bring to the table. For example, you might be the best person to provide the hands-on daily care, but perhaps your brother has a good head for business and can manage bill paying and other money matters. Maybe another sibling can serve as CTO – chief transportation officer, in charge of getting your parent to and from doctor's appointments.
Ask for What You need
Part of delegating is being able to ask for what you need in no uncertain terms. The next time one of the family bystanders calls, tell them that mom is great but you could use some help. Be very straightforward. Say, "I'd love you to pick up her medications at the pharmacy later. Can you do that?" "On Monday, can you be in charge of making sure mom gets some dinner?"
Bring in Outside Resources When You Need Them
If family members are unable or unwilling to help, bring in outside reinforcements. These might be in the form of a home health care worker, or a geriatric care manager. These options will cost you, but risking the caregiver and elder's health, well-being and safety will cost much more in the end.
Set up properly, caregiving doesn't have to be a disaster, and it doesn't have to control every waking moment of your life. There will always be challenges, and caregiving may well be a full-time job, but approaching caregiving like a business can help you stay organized, find some time for yourself, ensure your parent is getting the best care, and preserve your sanity.