It can also mean cooking all the meals, cleaning the kitchen, doing the laundry, pulling the weeds in the garden and driving your loved one everywhere they need to go.
The weight of those everyday tasks can sometimes crush caregivers, whether they live with the care recipient or not, caregiving advocates say. Finding hired or volunteer help can lighten the load.
“These kinds of services are the things that can sometimes make the difference between someone being able to stay in their home or not,” says Amy Goyer, AARP’s family and caregiving expert and author of Juggling Life, Work and Caregiving.
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If you have enough money, “you can always hire someone,” Goyer says. Everything from gourmet meals to freshly ironed laundry can be delivered to your loved one’s door — for a price. Families that have never hired a mowing or snow removal service may splurge to keep a loved one at home. But caregivers with more limited budgets have more options than they might suspect, Goyer and other experts say.
The first stop for finding help for an older family member is the closest Area Agency on Aging (AAA). These federally funded agencies, which can be public or private, coordinate and offer services that help older adults stay in their homes. These can include homemaking and companion services, meals at home and in the community, and home safety checks and modifications. You can find your nearest agency at the U.S. Administration On Aging’s Eldercare Locator or by calling 1-800-677-1116. (Note: many agencies double as Aging and Disability Resource Centers, which broaden services to younger people with disabilities).
These agencies will know about other resources in your community, Goyer says, whether it’s a faith group that will send a crew to clean up an overgrown lawn, a volunteer taxi brigade that will drive your loved one to appointments, or a service that will deliver groceries for free.
Many services supported with public funds are available at reduced rates, based on a recipient’s income. In some cases, Medicaid or other insurers cover costs.
But the availability, affordability and usability of services vary greatly by community, cautions Christina Irving, client services director for the Family Caregiver Alliance. For example, a transportation agency that offers low-cost rides to seniors in a rural community may be unable to take people across county lines — a problem for people with far-flung medical providers.
Enlist the help of friends, community volunteers
One solution can be setting up your own team, with an app or website that lets you invite volunteers to sign up for chores, meals, rides or other tasks. “Those can be a great way to keep family and friends engaged,” Irving says, but they may not be sustainable over a long time. Another option is to start or join a community, such as those in the Village to Village Network, in which members coordinate free or reduced-price services among one another, she says.
Caregivers who don’t think they need help yet would be wise to think about future options and discuss them with the person needing care, advocates say. “It is a conversation that is difficult to have but really important,” Irving says. “The sooner people can begin that conversation, the better.”
Advocating for Assistance
Talking with a loved one about getting help around the house can be a delicate matter. A common mistake: barging in and announcing what’s needed and what you are going to do about it.
A better approach starts with these principles, says Tabatha Barrett, a director of social services and innovation at Darts, a nonprofit agency that offers caregiver support and other services in St. Paul, Minnesota.
Talk about your concerns, using “I statements.” Say: “I’m really scared when I see you going down the steps with that laundry basket, because I fear you that you’re going to fall.”
Seek solutions together. Offer ideas and see what your loved one says. For example, ask if they are they willing to get a housekeeper or move the laundry room.
Listen for objections and address them. Maybe your loved one does not want a stranger in their house. You could stay with them the first time the housekeeper comes. Or maybe they are worried about the expense. Explore enlisting volunteers or a reduced-fee service, if the recipient qualifies.
Take “no” for an answer. If your loved one is cognitively able to make decisions, accept their choices, even if they make you uncomfortable.
Kim Painter is a contributing writer who specializes in health and psychology. She frequently writes for AARP's Staying Sharp and previously worked as a health reporter and columnist at USA Today.