Experience is the best teacher. So who better to offer suggestions on caregiving than caregivers themselves? Here are the top tips gathered from members of the AARP online caregiving support community.
Study insurance coverage. In the course of taking care of my parents, we've discovered that it's important to know exactly what your loved one's health insurance covers, so read the policy carefully or call your insurer's customer service number to ask questions. If Medicare is the main provider, call 800 Medicare or go to Medicare.gov.
Keep numbers handy. We keep three lists near our kitchen phone: The first includes my mother-in-law's friends and relatives. The second includes the insurance company, the Visiting Nurses Association and all her doctors along with their "go to" people, such as the scheduling secretary, head nurse or case manager. The third is what we call our "help list," which has the contact info for all the good folks who've offered to lend a hand.
Rely on the pharmacy. I advise people to become familiar with services your local drug store offers, such as drive-through pickup, automated phone line for ordering refills, etc. Become friendly with the head pharmacist and all the staff; they will sometimes go the extra mile for you if they know who you are. Ask questions about the medicines, their side effects and any insurance issues that come up.
Accept all offers of help. Don't be shy about letting others pitch in. You need to take care of yourself and get out of the house when you can. So if a friend or neighbor offers to provide respite care, take advantage.
Forgive yourself. Do the best you can but recognize that no one is perfect. When we were caring for my mother-in-law, we occasionally forgot to give her medicines on time and once even dropped her on the way to the bathroom. We went through a lot of guilt before accepting that we were doing the best we could.
Trust your gut. You don't need a doctor to know something is wrong with an older relative. If you suspect dementia, bring your loved one to the doctor to get it checked out and to make sure he or she gets the best treatment available.
Keep a journal. If there is friction in the family, document what happens in the course of your caregiving. Sorry to have to say this, but it may come in handy when dealing with other siblings or in-laws someday.
Appreciate the little things. In the midst of constant illness, I try to focus on the pleasure of small things, such as taking my mom to the grocery store or my dad to Home Depot; sitting around a table having a cup of tea; having dinner with children or grandchildren, nieces or nephews. These moments are a great source of comfort when the going gets tough.
Make a list. Write down all the medications your loved one is taking, including drug name, dosage and frequency. You'll need this when you check into any medical facility or doctor's office.
Know where to find help. Many disease-specific groups and faith-based organizations provide support services to caregivers. This is in addition to help you can get from government programs in your town or state. To find out what's available near you, go to www.eldercare.gov,
Put your needs first. I wish that someone told me to make my own health and sanity a top priority. Just like on an airplane where the attendants tell you to put on your oxygen mask first so you can help others, you need to take care of yourself first. If you don't, you put your loved ones' well-being in jeopardy along with your own.
Seek counseling. Consider therapy if the going gets tough. Spilling your guts to a trained professional is a great way to cope.
Set limits. I would tell anyone who is contemplating taking care of elderly parents to think long and hard before making the commitment. Decide just how much you are willing to do — and what you won't be able to do. Talk to your parents about it when they can still understand and plan for the future. Don't wait until it's too late to have a thoughtful and honest conversation.
Keep a sense of humor. "What do I wish I knew to help me cope better with caregiving? The first bus schedule out of town! LOL!"