It’s a common story. An older relative visits the doctor and suddenly they’re in the midst of a serious health crisis they can’t handle themselves. You do the right thing, of course, and offer to help. Now you’ve joined the ranks of the family caregivers across the country who are responsible for the well-being of another adult. So what happens now? Unfortunately there’s no guide for being a successful caregiver. And you’ll probably soon discover that it’s the toughest work you’ve ever done. But before you begin, there are a few steps you can take that will definitely help you along the way.
Do the Legal Work First
This job will be difficult enough, but if you’re not legally empowered to act for your family member, it will become a nightmare. Encourage them to complete their advanced directive, especially if they’re battling a life-limiting disease. Advanced directives are legal instruments that define the patients treatment wishes if they become incapacitated. There are different kinds of advanced directives, including:
- Durable Power of Attorney: If you become too ill to make decisions for yourself, a durable power of attorney empowers someone you trust to make healthcare decisions on your behalf.
- Living Will: If your life is threatened, and you can’t speak for yourself, a living will instructs physicians on your care preferences.
- Combined Directives: These include elements of both the durable power of attorney and living will as well as outlining more specific wishes regarding care outside of hospitals.
These documents ensure that your family member’s wishes are followed and will also protect you from guessing should sudden illness strike. Your family member can also complete a medical power of attorney form that designates a trusted individual to make medical decisions in their place. You can download your state’s advanced directive forms here. Depending on your circumstances, it might also be appropriate to set up a general power of attorney and financial trust arrangement. A lawyer trained in elder-law can help navigate this process.
Set the Ground Rules
You’ll be working very closely with your family member, so it’s important to establish ground rules and proper boundaries from the beginning. If you don’t, there’s a real risk of feeling resentment towards the person you’re caring for. And that won’t help either of you. You know what you’re comfortable with, so trust your gut and communicate those feeling with your family member. And remember, you’re not a servant, and you’re not a doormat. Your just trying to do what’s right.
Ideally, you won’t have to do this all on your own, and you shouldn’t have to. Enlist your friend’s and family members to pitch in however they can. Maybe it’s by bringing a hot meal by a couple times a month. Or maybe they can take over caregiving for a few hours so you can take a much-needed break. Every little bit will help.
You can also take advantage of respite care services offered by many home care agencies. Respite care is short-term, in-home care provided by professional caregivers. This valuable service will allow you to take a night off to see a movie, run errands, or just rest and recharge. These services are typically very affordable and can be an important source of support during a very difficult task.
Take Care of Yourself
Most importantly, you need to take care of yourself. It’s too easy to overlook your own needs when you’re consumed with the care of someone else. But the stakes are just too high to do anything else. Pay attention to your body and pay attention to your mood. If you feel either of them slipping, ask for help. It’s in both your best interests for you to remain healthy. You’re about to undertake a very difficult task, but the work you’ll do is important. Don’t be afraid to talk about what you’re going through because you’re certainly not alone.