Being a family caregiver is rewarding, but it can be stressful, too. When a loved one lives far away, caregivers face even more challenges. A trip home for the holidays may reveal the first clues that older relatives or parents are struggling with day-to-day tasks. Your mom may have projected a cheerful voice over the phone - but you find a different story when she greets you at the door for Thanksgiving.
How can you make the most of the time you have at home, and arrange for help when you can't be there? Start by being honest about your limits. No one can do it all. Get familiar with local resources that can guide you to available programs and services. In Wisconsin, you can find aging and caregiver support anywhere in the state by visiting wisconsincaregiver.org. Realize that you are not alone - 88% of U.S. adults spend time every week helping a family member with daily living. Don't be afraid to reach out to others - they might have just the solution you need.
The Caregiver Helpbook - a resource guide used in the Powerful Tools for Caregivers (PTC) workshop - offers many ideas you can use if you become concerned about the welfare of a loved one this holiday season. PTC helps caregivers improve their coping skills and find new solutions - even from far away. Participants learn how to handle stress better, and realize that to take care of their loved one, they must take better care of themselves. According to The Caregiver Helpbook, a few questions can help you focus on the care needs of your loved one - without losing sight of your own well-being.
Take Stock Before You Take Action
Before you assume what kind of help your older relative needs, keep in mind that she deeply values her independence - just as you do. Some changes are signs for concern - and some may simply be different ways of coping with the challenges of aging. How do you know when Mom needs more help to live on her own? If you haven't seen your relative in a few weeks, months or years, keep an eye out for changes in the following areas:
Diet and Meal Preparation
Is there fresh, nutritious food in the house? Does she have a good appetite? Is it hard for her to stand long enough to cook a meal? Has she lost weight?
Home Safety and Maintenance
Do scatter rugs or burned out lights point to a risk of falls? Are broken appliances going unrepaired for long periods?
Have her usual housekeeping standards and habits changed for the worse? Are dirty dishes or recycling piling up more than usual?
Are there any new health issues you didn't know about? Can she keep up with important health care routines?
Has her appearance and grooming deteriorated?
Are expired medications mixed in with new ones? Are you concerned about the number of prescriptions she is taking?
Mobility and Transportation
When was the last time your relative drove you somewhere? Are vision, hearing or memory an issue? Can she get to appointments without driving herself?
Socialization and Companionship
Do friends or neighbors call or stop over? Does she still get out - for example, to the senior center for a meal and movie?
Activities and Recreation
Is your relative involved with her usual hobbies or groups? Has she lost interest in her usual activities, or stopped doing something she loved?
Take a Step Back Before Taking Charge
As a concerned family member or neighbor, your natural response to your relative's needs may be to jump in feet first and start making changes. In most situations, though, your help will be more welcome if you take a step back. Talk with your relative about what she wants and needs. (Of course, if your relative is living in dangerous circumstances, you may have to take urgent action. Even then, it's still essential to listen to your relative's preferences.)
In your own mind, be clear and specific about the changes you see, and the problems those changes are causing.
Respect Her Point Of View
Does your relative see the changes as problems?
Has she found ways around the issue that work for her?
Does she need help temporarily - or is her need ongoing?
Look at Your Choices In A New Way
There are no perfect answers - every choice means letting go of some option.
Try to agree on what factors - such as financial limits and personal preferences - you and your relative will use to choose between solutions.
The "least worst" option may be the best decision for now - if it meets her needs and preserves her sense of choice and freedom.
Learn more about and find a Powerful Tools for Caregivers workshop here.