If you're taking on the role of caregiver for the first time, you probably have many questions: What exactly will it entail? Where can you find help? How do you even start?
When faced with this kind of uncertainty, the best thing you can do for your loved one — and yourself — is to make a caregiving plan. Of course, your loved one's needs may change over time, and you can never plan for every last detail or eventuality. But if you begin by covering the basics, you will have an important foundation to build on later.
Your initial caregiving plan will largely depend on your answers to these five key questions:
- For whom are you caring — an aging parent, an ill partner or friend, or a disabled family member?
- What precipitated the need for care?
- Is the situation time-limited (e.g., for someone who needs care while healing from surgery or an injury) or likely to continue indefinitely?
- What care or services will the person need?
- Aside from basic needs, what does your loved one want? For example, elderly parents may want to continue living independently at home rather than move in with you or to a nursing home. How can you help the person meet these goals?
As you begin to develop your plan, think about your own caregiving goals, too. The circumstances for each person and his or her needs will of course vary, but you can definitely make it a goal to treat your loved one with compassion and honor his or her dignity at all times.
Next, have an open, honest conversation with your care recipient about what both of you expect and determine just what issues need to be addressed.
However, an initial plan is just that — a first step. Change is one of the few certainties of caregiving, so it is important to re-evaluate your situation early and often, and to make changes whenever necessary. If possible, it can help to keep a step or two ahead by asking your loved one's doctors and other experts for their assessment of how the situation might change in another few weeks, months, or years.
For more advice on how to be a caregiver for a loved one, buy Caregiver's Handbook, a Special Health Report from Harvard Medical School.