En español | After more than 35 years of working while caring for my grandparents, sister, mom and dad (who is 92, has Alzheimer's and currently lives with me), I have butted my head up against one stark fact over and over: There are only 24 hours in a day, and there will always be more priority tasks than I can accomplish within that limit.
In other words, there are so many "top" priorities, there is no way I can do everything I "need" to do. So I have learned to hone my time management skills to get the biggest return on my investment of time.
Here are my top 10 tips for managing day-to-day time as a caregiver.
- Schedule "me" time first. When juggling life, work and caregiving, life is invariably the area that gets squeezed out. But we don't expect our cars to run on empty, and we can't expect ourselves to, either. In order to have the energy to care for others, we have to fill our own tanks first. It's not selfish; it's practical. No one is productive when physically, mentally or emotionally depleted. You can find a reasonable amount of time to care for yourself if you schedule it. Trust me. Arrange for backup or respite care, then schedule family activities, an exercise class, a massage, time with friends, a round of golf or whatever fills you up.
- Plan ahead. Whenever you take even five minutes to plan ahead, you'll save time in the long run. For example: going over a week's plans for Daddy's care and his appointments with my sister (who is one of our paid caregivers). This makes us much less likely to have gaps in coverage, and I can plan my work around his appointments and make sure extra hands are available when needed. When we don't do this, we invariably wind up with lots of last-minute stress and wasted time. As much as possible, I also plan for the bigger picture: future care needs as Dad's Alzheimer's progresses.
- Define roles and responsibilities. Duplication of tasks is one of the biggest time wasters, so make sure all members of the caregiving team are clear about their duties. Likewise, if no one thinks a task is theirs, it doesn't get done and eventually requires even more time. For example, it's my job to manage the mail-order medications for Dad, and it's my sister's job to let me know when we need to refill a prescription. If she's not clear on her role, she may not tell me, and then we'll run out of a medication and I'll spend extra time calling the doctor, getting a new prescription called in to a pharmacy and picking it up.
- Make a list and prioritize it — repeatedly. I often waste time feeling overwhelmed and doing a bit of this and a bit of that if I'm not clear about everything on my plate. A list is both a visual reminder to keep me on track and help me focus, and a tool for prioritization. I categorize tasks as a) need to do/know, b) may need to do/know, c) want to do/know. Sometimes the big things, like doing Dad's taxes or finding a new paid caregiver, take precedence. But other times, ticking off several smaller items gives me a sense of accomplishment that propels me forward.
I try to focus on three top priorities per day. If you're a born list-maker like me, this comes easily. But if you're not, there are many tools that can help you. Keep one notebook for to-do's, get an organization notepad already designed for daily or weekly lists (like "Today's Plan of Attack" from knockknockstuff.com), or try a list-making or to-do app that synchronizes on your computer, smartphone and tablet. I like Wunderlist, but other great options are Errands, Producteev, Remember the Milk, Todoist and Toodledo. Avoid jotting lists in multiple places: That defeats the purpose.
- Don't procrastinate. More often than not, a task just gets more complicated with time. Our molehills become mountains. Do it now.
- Manage expectations. As my caregiving responsibilities have grown more intense over the years, I have had to adjust my expectations about what I can actually get done and the degree of "perfection" I can achieve. I've learned that I can do anything, but I cannot do everything. Now that I care for Dad on the weekends, I know I'm lucky if I can complete even one personal task (paying bills, doing laundry, yard work). I used to take time to cook complicated meals; now simple, but good, slow-cooker dinners are my forte. Sometimes good enough really is good enough.
- Be mindful. If my mind is torn between what I'm currently doing and thinking about all the other tasks I need to do, I am slower, much less efficient and more stressed out. Rather than multitasking, I try to focus fully on Dad when I'm with him, on my work when I'm working, and on my relaxation when I'm taking care of myself. The bonus? I more fully experience everything, including time spent with those I love.
- Touch it once. I learned this skill through my work and I've transferred it to my caregiving experience. This is where easy filing systems — and scanning (or photographing) paperwork to make electronic copies — come in handy. When I get a receipt for a doctor's copay or supplies for Dad, I avoid setting them down on the kitchen counter and forgetting about them. Instead I go right to the filing cabinet or my phone to file it, scan it or shred it. The same goes for putting away kitchen utensils, caregiving supplies, clothes, etc. Before you set that item down, take an extra minute to put it where it belongs so it doesn't become another entry on your to-do list later.
- Declutter and get organized. Environmental chaos wears our energy down and makes it much harder to implement the previous tips. We waste time searching for things. Internal chaos works the same way. I've used technology organizing options (see tip 4), but I also had a consultation with a professional organizer that was incredibly helpful. She worked with me to make a plan, which I implemented. (You can also pay a professional to do the organizing for you.)
- Expect detours. Invariably, crises will come and our plans will be thrown off course. I've learned to expect this rather than dread it, so I don't feel like a failure when it happens. If I fall back to my time management skills, I know I will bounce back — and resiliency is my standard of caregiving "success."
Amy Goyer is AARP's family, caregiving and multigenerational issues expert; she spends most of her time in Phoenix, where she is caregiving for her dad, who lives with her. She is the author of AARP's Juggling Life, Work and Caregiving. Follow Amy on Twitter @amygoyer and on Facebook. For ongoing caregiving support from Amy and AARP, text AMY to 97779.