Caring for elderly parents is not for the faint of heart because you’re a novice in uncharted territory. But when things get tough, you definitely have to be grateful you have your parents (!!!) and remember that many other people would give everything they have to have just one more day with their mom and dad.
I recently moved my parents — rather abruptly — from their home 350 miles away into an independent living retirement community near my house because I could see they were declining rapidly at ages 90 and 92. Here are 20 tips I learned during my first month of caregiving:
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- Build up your self-esteem any way you can, because you may need it. Being a caregiver can be a blow to your confidence (1) When one or both parents are less than complimentary about your best efforts (2) On the nights when you get home at 10 p.m. after working all day and visiting them – and have to hurry to eat and go to bed, so you can do it again the next day (3)When you want to cry and you tell yourself, “I don’t know if I can do this!” To counteract negativity, it helps to buy a self-esteem page-a-day calendar like I did — and find other things to lift your spirits (yoga, meditation, prayer, etc.)!
- Carry your phone everywhere and be prepared 24/7 for phone calls to your parents, your parents’ medical providers, retirement center administrators, creditors, and more — and calls from those very same people with sometimes urgent and anxiety-provoking news. Tip: Get an app that converts voicemail to text messages, so you can sneak a peek during meetings at work, church services, parties, movies or any time when it would be inconvenient and time-consuming to play a voicemail.
- Record contact info in your phone for every person or business you contact on your parents’ behalf (doctors, physical therapists, pharmacies, etc.), because chances are good you’ll need it again!
- Take notes about every interaction you have regarding your parents’ insurance, medical records, prescriptions, doctor appointments, special needs, etc. And set up some sort of tickler system to follow up on the details. (I carry a notebook everywhere and record everything in it; it’s a godsend.) Don’t forget to remind yourself about things in you own life, too, like taking out the garbage!
- Carry copies of your parents’ Medicare cards and social security numbers with you at all times for unexpected emergency room visits and medical appointments; they may or may not have them on hand.
- Talk to friends who’ve cared for their parents. They can give you valuable tips and show you how to stay sane in situations that could bring you to your knees.
- Keep your sense of humor because it’s better to laugh than to cry. The first week my parents moved into the retirement community, one fell and ended up in the ER, and the second week one had a choking incident at dinner (Heimlich maneuver saved the day after an alert food server noticed and summoned help). After that, one inadvertently got a leg caught and pulled the “help” cord on the emergency device in the bathroom and was surprised to look up and see a strange woman in the bathroom during the shower.
- Get a credit card in your name on your parents’ account so you can buy the things they need without having to constantly seek reimbursement or get cash in advance. This was the best thing I could’ve done!
- Dress in layers. If your parents are always cold, their home could easily be near 80 degrees all the time and feel like a sauna –and you might need to shed some clothes when you visit.
- Mentally prepare yourself to talk about bodily functions and do things you never thought you’d ever do. I’ve told myself numerous times, “I can’t believe I’m doing this!” or “I can’t believe I’m having this conversation!”– but you’d be surprised what you can do if you need to.
- Look for the bright side to everything. For example — yes, I spent the whole evening in the emergency room the first week my parents moved here and it was scary and stressful, but at least no bones were broken and I didn’t miss work. And always, always remind yourself how glad you are to have your parents to take care of.
- Listen to and look at your parents and their surroundings carefully. Be alert that your mom’s eye is red and she needs eye drops. Be aware of things they may not hear. One night I visited and immediately heard a fan running. They thought I was crazy because they didn’t hear anything, but I got up on a chair and checked the over-the-stove mounted microwave and a fan on it had been running continuously when it shouldn’t be. Check that they’re stocked with food. Make sure their clothes are being washed, they have toiletries needed, their prescriptions don’t need refills and the house is being cleaned. Ask questions and follow up if you don’t think something is right.
- Make lists! Besides taking notes (see #4 above), making lists is a lifesaver. Put “things to do” in order of priority, so if you can only do a few things in a given day, they’re the most important things. There will be lots and lots of “things to do” in the first months after your parents move.
- Post a calendar and mark it with their appointments and events. You may want to notate what days you’ll come to visit, too. Post reminder notes — and the calendar — on their refrigerator for easy reference. (This is also helpful if a physical therapist visits them at home, since he or she can mark appointments on the calendar, too – and knows when they have other commitments.)
- Realize that you’ll be distracted and stressed with added responsibilities and duties. I know when I get overwhelmed, I tend to lose my key ring. If that’s your weak point, buy a device like Tile Mate to locate your keys with a phone app if they go missing. If something else happens to you under stress, be conscious of what it is and take some action to alleviate the problem.
- Be aware that you may have to learn a lot of new things — how Medicare works and what it pays for, how hearing aids work and how to care for them, etc.
- Keep in mind you’ll have personal crises of your own at the same time. During the first month I had car trouble, an ice and snow storm (in South Carolina!) that made roads impassible for days, a delayed flight on a weekend trip to my parents’ home in another state to clear stuff out that resulted in sleeping in the airport overnight, a broken garbage disposal with water dripping under the sink (see photo left), a heavy work schedule, Christmas (with no decorations, no cookies, few gifts) — and a full house of visiting family members. See #7, #11 and #15 above to cope.
- Take care of yourself! If you don’t eat well, exercise and get enough sleep — you can’t adequately help your parents. I lost 5 lbs. the first 10 days and got more than 10,000 steps on my Fitbit during those days and many others — so there may be some incidental health benefits!
- Don’t expect thanks. One of my parents is a thanker and the other, well, isn’t. Therefore, some of my more herculean efforts were met with either no comment or a complaint. (I had to go home and look at the sign from my calendar — see #1 above – for some self-esteem building on more than one occasion.)
- Enjoy the good times together — and be grateful for them.
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