As family caregivers, we often play many roles, including scheduler, financial manager, housecleaner, encourager, nurse, navigator, nurturer and more. Perhaps the most important role, though, is advocate, as we ensure the best life possible for our family and friends when they are vulnerable.
That includes understanding their wishes for care and quality of life and making sure they're adhered to; helping loved ones manage finances and legal matters; and making certain they receive appropriate and high-quality services and treatments when they need them. We are their voice when they are unable to advocate for themselves.
If the thought of being an advocate for others seems overwhelming, relax. You probably already have the skills to be effective; you just need to develop them and apply them in new ways. A few skills that I think are most important:
1. Observation. We are often too busy or exhausted to notice small changes, but sometimes the slightest shift in our loved ones' abilities, health, moods, safety needs or desires is an indicator of a much larger problem or health challenge, and catching those changes early can make all the difference. Observing the services they are receiving and adjusting any subpar care are another crucial responsibility.
How to get better at it: Try developing your observational skills through mindfulness and meditation (which can also lower your stress levels). Practice in a class, through yoga instruction or with a mindfulness app. Get adequate sleep to keep your mind clear. Take notes of your observations so you can track changes over time.
2. Organization. There are so many moving parts in a caregiving plan, it's tough to keep it organized. As an advocate, you'll need to manage caregiving team members, make task lists and organize the mounds of paperwork associated with health care, legal and financial matters. You'll want to make sure you can easily access all legal documents (such as power of attorney for finances and health care) when you need them.
How to get better at it: If getting or staying organized is a challenge for you, consider taking an organizing course, or hire a professional organizer to help you. Ask family members or friends to assist. Technology can help, too, including these caregiver-organizing apps.
3. Communication. This is a key skill for building relationships with those who help care for your loved ones (from family members to lawyers, doctors and more). Many people are a bit intimidated by certain topics, such as legal or financial matters. That can make some discussions tough.
How to get better at it: Be respectful, and try to set emotions aside when you are advocating for a loved one. And remember that listening is just as important as speaking in effective communication. Be clear, concise and get to the point. Express appreciation.
4. Questioning. My dad, a former professor, used to have a sign in his office that read, "Question everything." Now Dad is 93 and has Alzheimer's disease, and as I advocate for him, I often think of that message. My family's doctors and service providers will attest that I ask plenty of questions! I try to be prepared so I don't waste their time, but it's my job to gather information, and I'm not shy about it.
How to get better at it: Educate yourself about your loved ones' health conditions and financial or legal matters. Be prepared with a list of questions for meetings with doctors and other professionals. Don't give up until you are satisfied you've got the answers you need to advocate effectively.
Take notes. Never assume; always clarify. If you hit a roadblock in arranging care or services, question it and think about other ways to achieve the goal.
5. Tenacity. Someone once said my role caring for my parents was "chief bulldog." I guess that's true. As their advocate, I've had their best interests at heart and I take that job seriously. Facing a fragmented and frustrating health care system and trying to do more with less money can be discouraging. But I'll never give up.
How to get better at it: Be clear about your goals and believe that there are solutions. Surround yourself with encouraging people who will pick you up and cheer you on. Follow other caregivers' stories so you hear about the triumphs as well as the challenges. Choosing a positive mind-set is crucial. When caregiving knocks you down, get back up again. Resilience is success.
You'll find more of my tips for advocating for loved ones in my book, AARP's Juggling Life, Work and Caregiving.
Encourage others by sharing your positive experiences as an advocate. Post them in the comments section below, tweet them to me at @amygoyer, or post them on my Facebook page, and I'll share them.