Being a caregiver is a balancing act between providing loving, effective help and retaining a modicum of normalcy for your family — and yourself. It's a complicated mixture of scheduling, educating yourself, being compassionate, fulfilling your normal duties (working, being a parent, etc.) and keeping yourself healthy and happy. Here are some tips for making your caregiving experience the best possible.
Make your health and happiness priorities. Caregivers often put aside their own needs to take care of others, but that can backfire. You need to pay particular attention to your own health to handle the added stress and time constraints. Make sure to eat balanced meals, exercise (even if only for a few minutes), socialize with friends and get adequate sleep so your own health doesn't deteriorate.
Learn stress-reduction techniques such as meditation, tai chi, yoga or something else that brings you calmness. Seek counseling if you need additional help.
Curb the guilt and take a break. It's important to take time off from caregiving to do something for yourself, whether it's getting a massage, going to a concert or having a beer with friends. You shouldn't feel guilty for enjoying your life, and you'll be happier.
Join a support group. They provide information that can help solve common caregiver problems and a safe arena in which to share feelings, vent frustrations and spend social time with people in similar situations.
Learn all you can about the disease and underlying conditions of the person for whom you are caring and make yourself a contact for his or her medical team. You also can set up meetings or conference calls with a care manager so other family members can discuss their concerns.
Make their surroundings safe. Ask your health care providers what safety devices are needed, such as an emergency call button, safety rails in bathtubs, smoke alarms, etc.
Get training. Make sure you are properly trained to perform any medical procedures regularly required for your loved one's care.
Communicate and encourage. It's important that the person being cared for doesn't feel like a burden or that they have lost their independence. Spend unhurried time with the person, listen to their concerns and show them you love and respect them and can help them adjust to their new situation.
Encourage their independence. You don't need to do everything; be open to technology and aids that enable your loved one to do things without help.
Ask for help — and accept it. Call on friends and other family members to pitch in, seek out helpful resources available through organizations such as the local Council on Aging, community centers and faith-based groups, or hire help (see "Home, sweet home" on p. 7).
Get organized. Find out where important papers are kept, what bills are due and how they are paid. Make a list of insurance providers, doctors, banks and other important numbers. Make a chart of emergency contacts and put it on your loved one's refrigerator in case there is an emergency when you are not there.
Record advance directives, including your loved one's desires concerning end-of-life care, funerary arrangements and special bequests of personal items. It may seem awkward, but it's easier to discuss when death is not imminent.
Walk down memory lane. Spending time with your loved one is important to their well-being and is an opportunity to learn about family history, identify people you don't know in old photos and strengthen personal bonds.
Stay positive. Family meetings are a place for siblings and relatives to discuss their opinions about what is best for a loved one, but if things descend into squabbling, consider calling in an elder mediator (www.eldercaremediators.com), who can assess things from a neutral position.