November is Family Caregiver's Month, so it's a good time to pause and think about how you may become a family caregiver someday. I'm sharing my experience and some helpful resources.
This post is made possible with support from AARP’s Disrupt Aging. All opinions are my own.
November is always a tough month for me. My Dad passed away on Thanksgiving in 2006, after spending the last 14 months of his life with us.
The year and a half from when my Dad moved in with us to when he passed was such a whirlwind. Nothing was planned. We did everything in reaction instead of being prepared.
I learned a lot and am doing it differently this time around (with my Mom). It turns out there are steps you can take to prepare to be a family caregiver.
Who is a caregiver?
The role of caregiver is someone who supports a family members with basic functional (e.g., help with eating, bathing), household (e.g., meal preparation, help with shopping), and medical/nursing tasks.
By choosing to be a family caregiver, you're helping the individual remain in their home and community for as long as possible. According to the AARP, there are about 40 million American adults who are caring for another adult with a chronic, disabling, or other serious health condition.
I was surprised to learn that 1/4 of family caregivers are Millenials. This is a tough spot–at those ages caregivers may not have the emotional or financial support they need. AARP is working to help this new generation find what they need.
How to Prepare to be a Family Caregiver
- Talk early and often
- Identify resources
- Find a support system
- Focus on the positive
Talk early and often
Ideally, you would have time ahead of a major life change or accident to start talking about your family member's wishes. That didn't happen with my Dad. He was in the hospital after a heart attack, and his doctor said he could no longer live alone.
Ask your parent (or other family member) what they would do in case of an accident or emergency. Would they continue living in their home? Would they continue to drive? No one enjoys talking about the “what if's,” but it is important.
It took over a year of conversations with my mom before she moved here to Virginia. We both agree that as difficult as the process was, it was worth it.
It's helpful to have an idea of your family member's finances, but of course that can be a difficult conversation to have. All of these are!
Learn all you can to be an advocate for your family member. One of my main jobs as caregiver is to help explain medical information and terminology. I also need to understand Medicare, supplemental insurance, and much more.
I have asked friends for recommendations for doctors and specialists. I've asked for help many times, as has my mom. Everything that I have learned regarding finances and laws has helped my husband and I prepare our own estate plans.
The AARP has a Family Caregiver Action Kit filled with resources. There's a Glossary of common terms, a Q&A section, and even Tax Tips. It's a great place to start!
Find a support system
This tip is specifically for you as a caregiver. Plan ahead to have support for yourself to bolster you during your caregiving.
When my dad first moved in, it was like having an angry teenager in the house. I expected him to eat meals with us and do chores, and he was used to living alone. It was a very tough transition for both of us. I ended up talking with a therapist–with my 2-year-old down on the floor playing–to get us through that.
You may need support at work, or perhaps you can delegate more at home to free up time for caregiving. I have relied on the same “village” that I use in raising my kids to help me when I am being pulled in two directions. They help with driving and have even brought over meals when I need it.
Self care is so important, and it can be very challenging to find the time while balancing parenting and caregiving. Dedicate time each week to yourself so that you can continue to be strong for others. I get up ahead of my kids each morning to sit with a cup of tea and get some quiet time.
Focus on the positive
The first few years after my dad passed away, I was a mess. But now, when I look back, I have such fond memories of those months we had together. I remember him playing in the backyard with my son. I remember him learning to “babywear” so he could help with the newborn twins.
Acting as caregiver can be very emotional. Watching a loved one go through this journey is difficult. Open communication helps a lot. So can focusing on the good things that are happening.
Right now, my mom is deepening her relationship with me and my kids. That was hard to do from across the country. Next week, she'll be here for Thanksgiving and we will celebrate her birthday!
Whether you are currently a caregiver or foresee it in your future, I hope you'll take a look at AARP's Family Caregiver Action Kit. I especially like the Family Caregiving Guide; it breaks the process down into smaller pieces so you can tackle them one at a time.