Easy Steps for Maintaining Balance as a Caregiver
By Linda Fodrini-Johnson, MA, MFT, CMC, Aging Life Care Association™ Member and Fellow of the Leadership Academy
As adult children caring for our parents, we may not be able to reverse the inevitable end-of-life issues our parents are facing, but we can prepare ourselves with information ahead of time so there are fewer surprises. Tackle the challenges that come with caregiving and create a more balanced life by following these easy steps.
1. Establish Connection Through Honest Conversation
The goal here is to gather information about your parents regarding the present and the future. The first conversation about these important issues may be uncomfortable; it may take a few conversations before your parents are willing to give up a little control and plan with you for their future. Your goal is to get your parents’ answers to all the “what if ” questions now, so you can all reduce any confusion and indecision during an actual crisis.
• Planning the Conversation - Make a list of your concerns. Base them on your own observations and those of others who are close to your parents’ situation. Prioritize the list with what you see as the most important issues at the top.
• Starting the Conversation - The approach you take with your parents is key to having a successful conversation. Think through your points very carefully and write them down to help you keep on track and grounded. The goal is to engage your parents in a meaningful conversation about what supports they might accept now and what they might consider in the future.
• Goals by Necessity - As mentioned above, it might take a few conversations before your parents are ready to be co-planners with you. The following are the most important issues to cover in that first, or a subsequent, conversation:
• Insurance information,
• Medical information,
• Legal information,
• Financial information,
• Day-to-day issues,
• Emergency call information,
• Social information, and
• Cognitive information.
2. Assemble Your Team
A family member who tries to fly on their own as a family caregiver can bring on some unintended dangers to their own health and the health of their parents by not knowing the right approaches to take or resources to use. You need a “home team” approach to reduce the likelihood that you will suffer from “burn out,” lose wages, sacrifice your career or your marriage, or miss out on activities that you hold dear and that keep your own engine revved.
A team can help you maintain balance in your life and can include:
• Family and sometimes friends,
• Skilled caregivers,
• An Elder Law Attorney, and
• An Aging Life CareTM professional.
If your parents have a low income, you can look for services through nonprofit and government agencies including:
• Catholic Social Services;
• Jewish Family Services;
• Lutheran Family Services;
• Your Local Area Agency on Aging –www.eldercarelocator.gov will lead you to an office near your parents; and
• Community organizations and services for low-income residents.
3. Protect Your Health
Without a sound body, successful family caregiving can be seriously derailed. The stress from caring for older parents can challenge every aspect of your life – work, parenting, exercising, partner relationships and more.
Here are some simple guidelines for caring for you:
• Have annual physical examinations;
• Stick to, or adopt, a healthy diet;
• Sleep well; and
• Get moving.
4. Maintain Positive Mental Health
Everyone on the team who is helping and caring for your parents needs to have a good sense of self and be open
to working well with each other. You all possess different gifts and skills, so sorting out who can/will do certain things helps everyone. But even cooperation doesn’t shield us from many of the feelings that arise when caring for others.
Even if we see ourselves as mentally healthy, and our lives as well balanced, we need a way to express our emotions to maintain a positive existence. It’s normal to experience times when we feel a little sad, confused, angry, depressed, or disappointed in ourselves or in others.
Here are some helpful skills to cultivate:
• All of your emotions are valid. Acknowledging how you feel is the first step toward overcoming negative feelings or accepting occasional negative feelings as part of the caregiving process.
• Learn to accept those negative or difficult feelings as normal and temporary.
• If the burden of sadness is overwhelming for you, it might be time to see an Aging Life Professional or a Licensed Mental Health professional.
• It can be easy to get swallowed up in the pain of loss and become isolated. Life is both joy and loss, not just one or the other. Reach out to friends and skilled professionals to help you “right your ship” and sustain you through the journey.
• Those caregivers who ask for help are better able to balance caregiving, family, career and self-care than those who do not.
• Support groups provide an extra layer of support as a place to listen to others in a similar situation.
5. Use Mindfulness to Create and Sustain Balance
Mindfulness activities are those exercises that help you get your mind to a place of relaxation, temporarily disconnected from the thoughts of everyday living. The exercises are purposeful and done with the intention of renewing your mind and body. Some of the exercises take just a few moments, while others might last an hour or more.
Some different ways to practice
• Nature walks;
• Guided meditation (you can purchase or download CDs and DVDs online);
• Relaxation Exercises;
• Some forms of massage can be accompanied by “mindfulness” exercises;
• Using a simple “mantra” – something you say internally as you take a sip of any fluid, such as, “peace is filling my mind and body;” and
• Breathing exercises.
6. Maintain Your Gains
Hopefully you have reached some significant milestones: 1) You have had meaningful conversations with your parents and created an equitable plan with them, 2) you have assembled your care team and set your plan in writing, and 3) you have learned the tools you’ll need to keep yourself healthy and your life in balance. Your newest task is to maintain all your gains. Like any new habit or program we start in our lives, it’s easy to slip up and fall back into old habits if we don’t make a conscious effort to stay on course.
A crisis can happen with your parents at any time. It might be a medical incident; an environmental issue, such as a blizzard, hurricane or earthquake; or a financial stumbling block. Avoid the escalation of problems and stress by maintaining control and being ready to act in any emergency.
Periodic check-in visits with an Aging Life Care Professional are very helpful to keep things stable. If your parent suffers with extreme memory loss or disorientation, remember that dementia is a bit of a moving target; you need professional oversight to make sure that you are addressing small issues as they come up, instead of waiting for a crisis. An Aging Life Care Professional will look for signs that might topple your progress, and address them before they become amore serious threat.
Linda Fodrini-Johnson, MA, MFT, CMC, is the Founder and President of Eldercare Services in Walnut Creek, CA. She is also a partner of the VillagePlan. Linda is a Fellow of the Leadership Academy and past-president of the Aging Life Care Association. Linda has over 30 years experience working as a Care Manager. You can reach her at linda@EldercareAnswers.com, or connect with her via social media: Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.
Thank you to the Aging Life Care Association™ for permission to share this information. You may learn more about Aging Life Care™ at aginglifecare.org.