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Being a care giver is a challenge. Like any job, it can bring rewards but it can also cause you to become anxious and exasperated. In many cases, the people who care for the elderly or sick have not chosen the role, are inadequately prepared for it, and lack the support they need to do it well. 

This Helpful Hints list is designed to provide some useful suggestions, especially for people who are caring for a senior with reduced cognitive abilities.  

Be realistic about the personís illness and your abilities.

Avoid putting pressure on yourself. Set reasonable goals. You will want to make sure the person is safe and comfortable, has a tranquil environment and can be as independent as possible. 

Ask the personís doctor or other health care provider to give you as much information as they can about the personís illness, or point you to other sources of information. In this way youíll have a better understanding of what symptoms to expect and what the person can and canít do, and for how long. 

People who are sick, and especially those who have had a stroke or head injury or suffer from Alzheimerís disease, often cannot control their behavior or their speech. You may have to remind yourself of this periodically so that you donít feel angry, wounded and frustrated.

Give the person as much freedom and independence as is practical, even if this simply means letting him choose whether to wear a red or a blue shirt. Donít offer too many choices as this can be confusing. 

He may take a long time to accomplish a task independently or semi-independently, but may be happier for having done so. For example, try setting out toothbrush and toothpaste and letting the person take up the task from there. 

It may be necessary to give directions in short, simple steps. Rather than telling the person ďPut on your jacketĒ you may have to cue him with ďPick up your coat; put your arm in the sleeve; now the other arm; now letís zip it up.Ē  

Be positive: tell the person what to do, not what he should not do.

Learning to cope with your new role

Nothing will stay the same forever and you must be flexible. Your goals and the personís needs will change over time.  

Youíll probably become very observant about the personís condition. Donít hesitate to report any changes to his or her doctor or other health care practitioner. They will usually appreciate any details you can provide.

If you have never done it before, youíll have to learn how to coordinate (such as make appointments, organize visits, etc.), delegate (let others help you!) and plan ahead.  

Because theirs is a 24-hour job, caregivers often neglect their own health and emotional needs. You must not, or you yourself will become ill or exhausted. Taking care of yourself doesnít mean you are neglecting your loved one Ė just the opposite, because his health depends on your own.

Avoiding burnout

The person for whom you are caring has limitations, but so do you. You cannot do everything and you should not attempt to.    

Let friends and family help out Ė in fact, donít wait for them to offer but ask for their assistance. Even if they simply sit and chat or watch television with the person, or read the newspaper to him, it will allow you to leave the house to do something pleasant or take care of your own health. Accept that others won't do everything just the way you do. 

Even children can help care for the ill senior; the experience can be beneficial for them. Ask them to help you out with small tasks or chores such as cooking, or to play cards or a game with the person or to discuss something theyíve learned in school.

Include other family members in discussions and decisions about your loved one and his or her illness. If possible, include the person being cared for.  By providing information you can probably improve communication and cooperation among family members.  

Think about sending your loved one to an adult day center for at least a couple of days a week. Such centers often provide transportation. Ask your health care provider to make some suggestions or contact a Veteransí Affairs Office if the person is a veteran.    

Recognize that you will feel stress and learn to manage it. Take time to relax. If your loved one often calls out at night, have someone else stay over sometimes to ensure you can have an uninterrupted night of sleep.  

Put the stereo on or sing. Elderly people especially enjoy music that helps them recall ďthe old daysĒ. Music can be very powerful: even those with Alzheimer's disease can often remember song lyrics even if they can no longer hold a conversation. And music can have a calming effect.  

There are other people in your situation, and there may be a caregiversí support group you can join. Try attending a meeting. You may discover that sharing your problems can help you find solutions, or that you can help others cope.

If your loved oneís illness becomes too much for you, it may be time to consider placing him or her in a nursing home or other facility. Your options include an adult family home (a private home licensed to care for a certain number of clients) or an assisted living facility offering 24-hour care. (Look for the Helpful Hints checklists on assisted living and nursing home selection.) 

Other services that may be as close as a few phone calls away:  

  • Some nursing homes offer temporary or respite care. With respite service your loved one can stay for a short period (usually two weeks or less) while you have some time off. Youíll likely need to book in advance and may require a doctorís note.  

  • Some church and fraternal groups (such as the Elks and Masons) will send volunteers to care for your loved one while you have a few hours off.  

  • You may be able to hire a nurse or nursing assistant occasionally by calling a home health agency.

If you are already a caregiver you know the job takes a great deal of your time and energy. But try to look at the positive. There can be much fulfillment and pleasure in letting your loved one remain a part of family life. The keys are to recognize your abilities and limitations and to take time for yourself. 


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