What to Do if You Are a First-Time Family Caregiver
While some family caregivers gradually grow into their roles or are born into it, others can pinpoint the event that started their journey: Their father was hospitalized after a fall and needed more help at home, or their wife was diagnosed with an unexpected chronic illness.
If you recently became a family caregiver, you may feel challenged due to the changes in your relationship with your loved one. You may have to help your loved one bathe and dress or take medications. You may need to drive them to appointments or orchestrate their care from another state or country.
The following tips can help you oversee your loved one’s care and well-being, manage your own stress levels and better enjoy your time together.
Organize Legal, Personal and Financial Documents
Whether you use a computer or notebooks and folders, begin by organizing any paperwork of your loved one, such as discharge instructions. As a caregiver, you may need to ensure your loved one’s bills are paid, contact their insurance provider about coverage or attend to similar affairs. In order to do so, you will need access to all their important paperwork and, in some situations, legal authority to do business on their behalf. To learn what constitutes important documentation and the steps to getting affairs in order, visit the National Institute on Aging and Next Avenue.
Research Your Options
The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) provides eligible employees up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave to care for their spouse, child or parent with a serious health condition. The FMLA applies all public agencies, local education agencies (schools) and private sector employers who have 50 or more employees for at least 20 workweeks. In addition to the FMLA, some states have specific family and medical leave laws.
Prepare the Home
Depending on your loved one’s level of independence, they may continue to live in their own home, or they may need to move in with you or to a higher level of care such as an assisted living or skilled nursing facility. Regardless, you need to make adjustments to provide a safe place for them. Some minor household fixes might include removing trip hazards, such as rugs and snaking electrical cords, and increasing the brightness of bulbs or the amount of lighting.
Pay special attention to the bathroom. According to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention, approximately 22 million Americans were injured in the bathroom, and the rate of injury increased with age. Specifically, Americans 65+ hurt themselves using the toilet and moving around the bathtub or shower. You can reduce fall risks and accidents by installing grab bars around the toilet and shower/bathtub.
Enlist Help and Care for Yourself
Caregiving can be a challenge physically, mentally and emotionally. By taking on all the duties of a caregiver by yourself, you are increasing your chances of caregiver burnout, which can lead to a weaker immune system and poor sleep among other side effects. This can make you a less effective caregiver for your loved one. You can lower your potential for burnout by reaching out to others for help:
- Ask other family members (or your loved one’s friends) to pitch in. They may be able to join you in the hands-on caregiving duties, or in secondary ways, such as preparing a meal or driving them to doctor appointments. When asking for assistance, never feel embarrassed or decline someone’s offer out of courtesy. Create a list of tasks you can delegate or need an extra hand with. Conversely, you could ask a friend or family member to be a confidant, someone to talk to when you feel stressed.
- Join a support group. Whether it’s online or in-person, meeting with others in similar situations gives you the opportunity to celebrate successes, offer consolation, share suggestions/guidance and form bonds. Many of the ComForCare/At Your Side Home Care franchises offer the Family Caregiver Skills and Support Group for those caring for loved ones with dementia. Call your local office to learn more. Additionally, you can find support groups by Googling “family caregiver support groups.”
- Seek out community services. One of the most well-known programs is Meals on Wheels, which provides meals and companionship for seniors in their homes or at community centers. If you are returning to the workforce or need a few hours to run errands, you may want to search for adult daycare centers or respite care services. You may discover you and your loved one need more assistance — that’s OK! Home care services could be the best option.
Most importantly, take care of yourself. Carve out time every day to recharge: Take a warm bath, play online games or visit with friends. You must tend to your needs so you are physically, emotionally and mentally prepared to care for your loved one.
Educate Yourself on Caregiving
There are many duties of a family caregiver: personal care, medical assistance, money management, companionship, etc. As you learn more, varied tasks will become manageable.
You can start your caregiver curriculum by enrolling in a CPR and/or basic first aid class through the American Red Cross, so you are prepared for medical emergencies should they happen.
If your loved one has a chronic illness or disability, learn as much as you can about it. Seek out reputable websites that are dedicated to the condition, such as the American Heart Association.
If you are concerned about helping your loved one move around safely, including transferring from a car, check out the first five instructional videos by The Home Alone AllianceSM.
For additional resources, visit your local Area Agency on Aging or The Importance of Self-care for Caregivers by Northwestern University's Online Masters in Counseling program.
Peruse our blog for more information on caregiving, aging, dementia, home care and more.
Being a caregiver is one of the ultimate acts of loyalty, selflessness and love. While you may lack confidence in your new role, you have already shown character and resilience in becoming a family caregiver. Education, organization and a support network will elevate your effectiveness as a caregiver and the quality of care you provide.
Editor’s note: This article was originally published August 16, 2017. It has been revamped and updated for accuracy and comprehensiveness.