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10 ways to cope during a caregiving crisis

Here are some great tips to help you keep your head above water when the going gets tough 

By Caroline Tapp-McDougall

1. Show respect. An aging parent may be slower in step and thought, but he or she has a lot of life experience and has made a number of lifestyle choices. Change, after all these years, may be difficult. Don’t discount their expertise or wishes. Rely on your knowledge of their past, their preferences, and right to maintain their dignity and sources of pleasure. Don’t rush them. Expect trepidation and delay tactics. The good news is that if you start early enough, while they’re still able to make decisions, you and they won’t feel as pressured.

2. Knowledge is everything. The devil you know is better than one you don’t. The more information you have, the less likely you are to be guessing and making mistakes. Find out what services are available and what they might cost. Look for sources of general eldercare information as well as for specific conditions. We’re info-rich these days. The trick for you is to figure out how to transfer knowledge into coping power. What skills can you acquire to make your eldercare friendly and stress-free?

Expertise and information are readily available. Be selective. Be objective. The good news is that the basics are pretty well covered by provincial health care. However, as with all “insurance programs,” how do we define basic? Each family’s needs are different. In my family’s case, basic wasn’t enough, and we decided to hire extra help. Visit for support and information. 

3. Consider eventualities.Though often a difficult task to face, it may be necessary to get your parent’s financial and legal affairs in order. If you procrastinate too long, your loved one’s mental or physical health might deteriorate to the point where he is not able to sign authority over to you. Has power of attorney been assigned to you for your loved one’s personal care and financial matters? Do your parents have wills? It would be prudent to get legal advice so that everything is looked after before a crisis occurs. Find copies of important documents and check to make sure that you have what you need readily available.

4. Time your discussions for maximum openness. Pick a suitable time to talk— a free Saturday or Sunday morning in the garden or during a casual afternoon walk or over coffee in the kitchen. Start with open-ended questions and be ready to listen and gently bring the discussion back to where you’d like them to go. You may not like what you hear, and you may need to finesse the details over time, but you have to begin somewhere. This is not a business meeting; it may not have a tight beginning and end, and it may not be on your terms and at your time. These are your parents—be gentle, but be firm.

5. Privacy matters. Ask for a parents’ agreement to table the discussion, but perhaps try to get ideas from both of them independently as to what their goals/wishes might be. This is an adult-to-adult discussion and at first should probably only involve the individual who will take primary responsibility. Expect resistance, even in the “talking phase.” Many parents want to retain control and independence for as long as possible.

6. Take notes. Written records avoid confusion, waffling, and potential discrepancies. Refer to notes for confirmation, instructions, and care plans. It’s hard to remember everything and always best to double check and confirm. The best way to “share the care” is with clear instructions and good notes. It will also help health professionals during assessments and appointments if your records are in order.

7. Facilitator or decision maker? How involved can and will your parents be in financial decision-making? If you know their wishes and they can actively participate, your role is quite different. Who will pay the bills? Decide now that you’ll use their assets to pay for their care and think about how much, if at all, it will be necessary for you to “top up” funds. At the end of the day, be careful, but let their assets, if any, determine the levels of care. And remember, you parents’ lives might have been simpler and more frugal than yours. Prioritize safety, nutrition, necessary equipment, and hygiene to support comfort and quality of life.

8. Opt for safety. Yours and theirs! Don’t take on or support unsafe situations. Early safeguards will deliver solid returns and hopefully prevent unnecessary risks. Consider home safety checks, visual checklists, memory prompts, safe lifting, and access to the right home healthcare equipment.

9. Don’t get in between. When spouses have different needs and express them, it might be tough on you. Don’t be surprised when they argue. Don’t be awestruck that Dad still drinks and Mom moans about it. Unfortunately, illness and aging don’t always bring out the best in us. Even if they’re miserable together, they’d be worse off apart.

10. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Don’t isolate yourself. In the first few weeks of caregiving, you may be too busy even to think about joining a support group. However, established support groups offer an alternate outlet for sharing and venting feelings. By acknowledging your feelings, you can begin to understand them. You might find it easier to talk to friends, family members or colleagues who are in the same position as you, who truly understand your situation, and can offer emotional support as you carry out your day-to-day responsibilities.  

Caroline Tapp-McDougall is a healthcare journalist and author of The Complete Guide For Family Caregivers.

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