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5 Steps for First-Time Family Caregivers

Follow these tips to ease the transition into caregiving

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Caring for a family member or close friend who is aging or ill is one of the most important roles you can play in that relationship — and one of the most complicated.

The caregiving can happen suddenly with an accident or disease diagnosis, or start gradually with driving your loved one to get groceries or see a doctor. Later, you may find yourself preparing meals, handling their finances or taking time off work to address their growing needs.

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Whether you're just beginning to anticipate a need or taking care of a family member full time, these tips, resources and checklists can help you get organized and find support on your caregiving journey. Remember: Just take it one step at a time.

1. Start the conversation

The right time to talk about the future is now, even if it's uncomfortable.

Ask your loved one about their preferences, values and wishes for things that matter, from health to finances. If you wait until an accident, fall or serious diagnosis, when everyone's stress levels are sky high, your choices may be more limited and more difficult to evaluate.

  • Look for an opening. Rather than bringing up a tough topic out of the blue, find a suitable conversation starter — perhaps a recent comment from your loved one or an article you saw online. Example: “You mentioned your eyes are bothering you. Is this causing problems with reading or driving?”

  • Keep trying. For some people, admitting they need help can be hard. If your first talk doesn't go well, gently try again. If you are repeatedly shut out, consider asking another family member, a trusted friend or a doctor to approach the person about your concerns.

  • Don't avoid the subject of money. It's often at the heart of decisions you'll make as a caregiver. Respectfully ask your loved one to review bank accounts and health insurance so you can know how much is available to cover potential costs.

  • Listen to and respect your loved one's desires. The person you're caring for always should participate in discussions about his needs and plans, to every extent possible.

  • Bring others into the conversation. Ask a few other people close to your loved one — family members or friends — to be part of the process. Conflicts may arise, but don't be afraid to talk through them. Better to do so now than in a time of crisis.

2. Form a team

Trying to handle the responsibilities of caregiving by yourself can lead to burnout and stress-related health problems. Don't go it alone.

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Reach out to form a larger network of family, friends and community resources that can help you. And always remember to consider your loved one a part of the team.

  • Go deep and go wide. Team members who have little free time or don't live nearby can still play valuable roles. Maybe they can pitch in with bill paying, financial help or meal organizing. The computer whiz in the family could set up an electronic calendar for chores or dinner delivery.

  • Decide who's in charge. It's important to have a point person to keep the process moving and make sure everyone on the team understands plans and priorities. In most families, one person assumes the primary role by virtue of living nearby, having a close relationship with the care recipient or being a take-charge person. That might be you.

  • Consider a mediator. When difficult subjects and potential disagreements arise, engaging an outside facilitator, such as a social worker or minister, can be useful to keep the team focused and maintain smooth, productive communication.

3. Make a plan

Now work with your team to develop a plan, thinking both short term — such as determining who will be responsible for each caregiving task — and long term.

You can't anticipate every detail or scenario, but being forward-thinking now will help you respond more quickly and effectively in an emergency. That mind-set also helps ensure that everyone keeps the focus on what's best for your loved one.

  • Determine roles. Ask team members what tasks they can take on. Who is free to travel to medical appointments? Who can prepare meals a few times a week? Who can make sure the bills are paid? If you're the primary caregiver, delegating even small tasks can make a big difference in your busy schedule.

  • Be honest with yourself. Think about what you are prepared to do. Caregiving can involve intimate tasks, such as helping a loved one bathe or use the toilet. If you are uncomfortable with something, ask if another team member can step in. If financially feasible, consider hiring assistance.

  • Put it in writing. A written record will ensure that everyone is on the same page and avoid misunderstandings. Summarize and distribute the plan in writing and make sure everyone understands it will evolve as time passes and the care recipient's condition changes.

  • Find the best way to communicate. You may want to set up an email group to keep everyone up to date. You might also consider using an online scheduling tool such as Lotsa Helping Hands to organize and stay current on who's doing what, when.

4. Care for your loved one

This step encompasses the others, of course, and every caregiver's situation is different.

But a wide range of resources and tools can make your job easier, whether you're caring for a parent who lives in another state, a spouse with a long-term illness or a sibling with dementia. In any caregiving situation, find out in advance where to get information and assistance.

  • Advocate for yourself. Let doctors know that you are the primary caregiver and need to be informed about your loved one's condition and treatments. Ask for training if you are expected to do procedures at home, such as injecting medication or changing bandages.

  • Keep the home safe. If the person you're caring for has difficulty getting around or their vision or hearing fades, some simple changes can make the home less hazardous. Consider installing items such as adjustable shower seats, grab bars, handrails and night-lights.

  • Stay organized. Caregivers need to keep track of lots of information — emergency phone numbers, health records, prescriptions and more. It can feel overwhelming. Caregiving apps such as CareZone and Medisafe can help you stay on top of appointments, medication times and other key information.

5. Care for yourself

Family caregivers find it easy to forget about their own needs, which is why caregivers often experience high stress levels, depression and other health problems.

Don't neglect exercise, healthy eating and sleep. And take time for activities you enjoy. You'll need to keep up your energy and stay well to care for others.

  • Understand caregiving's costs. You might find yourself taking time off work, cutting back on hours, passing up promotions and paying for things like your loved one's groceries and prescriptions. Try to calculate these costs when doing family budgeting.

  • See if your workplace is accommodating. Your employer might be fine with you adjusting your schedule or working from home some days to meet caregiving responsibilities. If you need more time off, find out if the Family and Medical Leave Act covers your workplace. Eligible employees can take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave a year for caregiving duties.

  • Give yourself a break. Sometimes caregivers feel guilty about taking time to have fun. Find ways to reduce your stress and enjoy yourself. Many caregivers turn to yoga or meditation, or arrange a weekly movie outing with friends. Think about what activities you find relaxing or energizing and put them on your to-do list.

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