If you're retired (or if you're thinking about retiring) and you're taking care of your aging parents, a spouse or a sibling, it can feel as though you've traded one job for another.
Being a family caregiver is complicated — when relatives are involved, emotions can run high. When do you lend a hand, and when do you step back? What's best for you and your family? How do you make time for yourself? Is it normal to ever feel resentful, impatient, overwhelmed or angry? (The answer to that last question, by the way, is a resounding yes.)
Baby boomers are especially affected by the added pressure and guilt that come with the confluence of retirement and caregiving. To be a successful family caregiver, you'll need to have empathy and a plan — and an understanding of your own limitations.
What Makes a Good Family Caregiver?
Being a good caregiver is subjective. It depends on your circumstances and your expectations. But the following three guiding principles are good general measures of successful family caregiving:
- Have peace of mind and few regrets. Know that you're doing everything you can — or that you did everything you could — to make your loved one's life better, regardless of the outcome.
- Make the person you're caring for feel safe, valued and loved. Don't make them feel as though they're a burden or a bore.
- Preserve your mental and physical health. Successful caregiving isn't just about the person receiving care.
No doubt, these are lofty goals. So how do you achieve them?
5 Top Tips for Caregiver Success
1. Be a Compassionate Problem-Solver
Trade seats. What would it feel like to have someone caring for you? How would you like to be treated? Don't minimize or ignore the disappointments, worries and situation of the person you're caring for. Acknowledge them.
Saying "It must be hard for you" or "I'm so sorry you have to stop driving" shows you understand. But don't just leave it at that. Come up with other things your family member can do within their limitations. If they have to give up something, find an alternative. If they have to give up their driver's license, for example, call your nearby senior center, town hall or local Area Agency on Aging office to find other ways to get around.
Work with what you have. If your parent has a physical limitation or dementia, for example, they might not be able to sit through a concert or a baseball game. But you can still play music from their younger years or listen to the ballgame together on the couch. Focus on what they can do — not what they can't.
2. Get Your Care Recipient's Opinion — and Respect It
If your family member is able, have them make — or at least weigh in on — decisions that affect them, such as a change in caregiver or living arrangement. They need to be heard, to have a sense of control and to feel like part of the team. For example, if your parent says their doctor is dismissive or uncaring, go into the exam room with them next time, or ask a sibling to go with them if you can't.
Remember, even if you're the primary caregiver, other family members need to know what's going on. It's the right thing to do, and it leaves less room for misunderstandings and resentment.
Ask your parents what their care and housing wishes are, and ask about their end-of-life considerations. These might be tough conversations, but they can guide you — and you won't have to second-guess them.
That said, don't make promises you can't keep. For example, if your parent demands that you let them stay in their house, assure them that you'll do everything you can to honor their wishes. That's the best you can do — and that's OK.
3. Encourage Independence
If you run to solve every crisis, the person you're caring for might feel powerless and might stop trying to do things for themselves. Yes, it might be quicker and easier to do the grocery shopping for them — but if they can't do it alone, maybe they can come with you and choose what they want.
4. Think About How Caregiving Affects Your Finances
If you've had to stop working to care for a parent or grandparent, you've lost income — and probably future savings for retirement, too. The same is true if you take an early retirement or if you get laid off later in life.
Caregiving can cost thousands of dollars every year; make sure to account for these expenses in your finances. Insurance could help you cover any unexpected costs.
A financial planner could help you find ways to cut costs; an accountant could see if you qualify for a caregiver tax credit. In certain situations, you could even get paid for caring for a relative. It depends on the program and the state you live in as well as your family member's financial situation. Chances are better if they're on Medicaid or if they're a veteran.
5. Give Yourself a Break
Self-care is an important part of caregiving. You need to know when you're overextended or exhausted and when you need to ask for help.
Maybe you're experiencing caregiver fatigue, a type of burnout specific to caregiving. Some people find meaning and purpose in caregiving and consider it special time with their loved one. Maybe you don't love being on call and feeling needed 24/7. Truth is, most caregivers experience a wide range of emotions — some achievement, some annoyance, even some ambivalence.
Everyone makes mistakes, so if you're plagued by what ifs and should'ves, just acknowledge them and move on. Maybe you shouldn't have snapped at your brother when he said he couldn't help out the other day. Give yourself a pass; maybe it was the right response anyway. If it isn't, admit that you blew it — and think about how you might respond differently next time.
Being a good caregiver means being good to yourself as well as to the people you love. Give yourself permission to enjoy your free time. Play a sport, take a walk with a friend, play with your dog in the park, practice yoga, listen to a lecture online or have a latte at your local coffee shop. Self-care activities are good for your health and will help you return to your caregiving duties feeling refreshed.
Supporting Your Loved Ones
Being a successful family caregiver means advocating for the family member you're caring for and supporting them with empathy. It's about feeling confident that you're doing the best job that you can and always moving forward with positivity. When you make your loved one feel cherished and treat yourself the same way, you're in business.
Family caregiving is absolutely a challenge. You might not try out for the job of family caregiver, but it's a role you can master and learn to appreciate. With the above tips and advice, you're ready to get started.