Caregiver Dilemma: Moving Beyond the Wake Up Call

Popular media is abuzz with wake up calls for adult children. Framed as warnings, they detail the impending crisis that comes with caring for aging parents. While provoking anxiety and concern, they are ineffective as a call to action. It’s not that adult children are unwilling to take action. In my experience, I have found the challenge for them is where to start in the face of such a daunting task. In most cases, I have them start with an inventory of caregiving assets. Here’s why.

This foundational inventory is a master list of actual and potential caregiving assets. These could include family members, friends, neighbors, religious organizations, city, state and federal programs, senior services professionals, real estate holdings, reverse mortgages, retirement savings, wills, power of attorney, probate, long-term care insurance, Medicare benefits, Medicaid benefits, aging in place options, independent and assisted living, and fall prevention.

The initial draft of the master list of assets is then integrated into a filtering and filing system. Each caregiving asset is set up in its own file with the full deck of files being housed in a dedicated filing cabinet. Just setting up this system is a major step forward for adult children. It provides both a structure for gathering and mobilizing caregiver assets as well as a central location for important papers and resource materials.

Once set up, the inventory takes on a life of it’s own. As it deepens and expands, it replaces magical thinking with a reality-based assessment of how adult children are going to orchestrate, fund, and navigate the journey of their aging parents. As important, it shows them where they need to do their homework.

Caregivers are by definition students of aging and life-long learning thrives in a system of modest, measureable goals. The inventory highlights obvious gaps that need to be addressed in a timely and systematic way. These informational blind spots are organized on a priority basis with the most urgent topics at the top of the list.

Homework assignments for topics are set up in 30-day timeframes, which is an effective and sustainable goal period. What are realistic goals that can be accomplished in four weeks? What materials will be needed? How much time needs to be allocated for them? What’s the best way to schedule them? How will they be measured? How will their progress be documented?

I advise clients not to try to make up for past mistakes. This is not a sprint. Rather, this is a marathon of sustained caregiving that requires a steady effort, constant adjustments, unwelcomed failures and repeated recoveries. Success is predicated on progress over perfection.

With a foundational inventory, honest feedback about what adult children know and don’t know and dedication to a 30-day goal system, the new process produces impressive results. It bolsters self-confidence and upgrades caregiving skills. The secret to success is working the system: mapping out a 30-day timeframe, noting all aspects of progress (what worked, what didn’t work), and using progress notes to recast new 30-day goals.

Lastly, I advise adult children to draft a crisis plan based on the following questions: If an aging parents suddenly crashes, what’s the plan? Who’s in it? Who are the key medical, financial, and legal players? Do they know you? Do they know you’re essential to the plan? Where are all the moving parts such as the funds, the phone numbers, the keys to the house, etc.? I advise them to use the 30-day goal setting system to fill in the gaps.

This is where we start. Obviously, there are more elaborate systems available for caregivers. But here is what I know about how adult children operate after thirty years of coaching them and their families. It’s all about the first step. Finding a simple and effective way to take sustainable action turns out to be the magic bullet that can reduce poor outcomes, and there’s the rub.

Most of us don’t start. We think about starting, but we don’t. If we do, we don’t have a compelling ritual to keep going. The caregiving assets inventory system combined with a crisis plan gives adult children an easy way to start and keep going. It provides a realistic view of the current situation, where immediate work needs to be done, how to manage the homework and how to create a crisis plan. Intentions count in caregiving but not that much. In the end, we don’t think ourselves into a new way of caregiving. We act ourselves into a new set of caregiver skills.