When you're starting out as a family caregiver, it's hard to know where to begin. Perhaps you've only recently realized that a loved one needs assistance, and is no longer as self-sufficient as he or she once was. Or perhaps there has been a sudden change in a loved one's health.
Now it's time to take action, and take stock of the people, services and information that will help you care for your loved one. The earlier you find support, the better.
Start with a diagnosis. If your loved one is forgetful at times or has gone through a noticeable personality change, take him or her to a neurologist or diagnostic clinic. A thorough evaluation will rule out any reversible causes of dementia symptoms, such as depression, nutritional deficiencies, reactions to medication or infection. An early diagnosis of Alzheimer's disease, or another disease that causes cognitive impairment, has many benefits. First, treatment for Alzheimer's disease is most effective in the earlier stages and can buy more independence for your loved one. Second, knowing your loved one's diagnosis can help you plan ahead realistically. Learn as much as you can about your family member's condition. This information will confirm that you are not imagining things or exaggerating your loved one's behavior. Especially when you're dealing with dementia'learning about the diagnosis will help you keep in mind that it's the disease that is causing your loved one to gradually lose control over his or her behavior. Many books, videos and classes are available to inform you about what you can expect as your loved one's disease progresses.
Talk with your loved one about his or her finances and health care wishes. If your relative is able to complete a Durable Power of Attorney for finances and health care, assist her or him in meeting with an elderlaw specialist to draw up these documents. This planning can help relieve your immediate anxiety and make you better prepared for the future. It can also start important discussions with your family members. If your loved one doesn't have the capacity to execute these documents, you will need further legal advice to learn about your options.
At this stage, consider inviting family and close friends to come together and discuss your loved one's care. If possible, your loved one should be included in the meeting. List the tasks that are needed so they can be more easily divided up. Let everyone discuss their concerns, as well as how much and what kind of help each person can offer. As the primary caregiver, it's best for you to focus on accepting what assistance your friends and family are offering, even if it's not exactly what you had in mind. For more information see the FCA Fact Sheet called Holding a Family Meeting.
Take advantage of community resources such as Meals on Wheels and adult day care programs. These resources are available so that you don't have to do everything yourself'and to give you a break. You can also see if there are caregiver classes and workshops offered in your community by calling FCA or your local Caregiver Resource Center or Area Agency on Aging. These education programs will help you feel more confident and make the time you spend caregiving easier for both you and your loved one.
After all of this planning, don't forget what's most important: finding support for yourself. Caregivers often feel isolated as they take on more responsibility, and as their social lives move into the background. A support group is a good place to meet other family caregivers who have really "been there". You can attend support groups in your community, as well as through the Internet. Call FCA at (800) 445-8106 to learn about support groups, classes and other services for caregivers in your area, or visit www.caregiver.org.