Co-Caregiving: Tips for Success

(Reprinted from Trish’s website www.robertssister.com)

Our caregiving situation is not unusual. According to a 2009 study conducted by the National Alliance for Caregiving in collaboration with AARP, approximately one-third of caregivers care for two or more people.

Trish and Richard with Robert in the middle

Trish and Richard with Robert in the middle

In our own situation, I am the primary caregiver for my brother, Robert, and Richard (@kreisler) is the primary caregiver for his mom, Carol. To add to the mix, Richard is a caree himself because of his chronic back pain.  We’re each helping to care for at least two people and we’re doing so together.

Becoming co-caregivers didn’t happen overnight. It took many years for Richard and I to develop into a successful co-caregiving team.

This is not to say we are always successful but we will discuss the challenges and pitfalls of co-caregiving in the next post. For now, let’s talk about what works.

Knowing  Our Strengths. It is important for us to not only know our own strengths but the other co-caregiver’s strengths as well. Fortunately, we are both organized and prefer “neat and tidy” to chaos (just ask those kids we raised). Richard tends to nest better than I do yet we all benefit from it! Before Robert moved in, Richard was on not only a cleaning spree but took up canning jam and spaghetti sauce as well as trying his hand at pickling asparagus. I’m sure I gained five pounds before Robert even moved in with his never-ending supply of Rocky Road ice cream in the freezer (not that I ever eat ice cream . . . ).

While Richard was canning and cleaning, I was creating spreadsheets for the medication and supplies, ordering supplies and contacting all the agencies we would be dealing with. My “nesting” showed itself in organizing cabinets in our garage for Robert’s clothes and supplies.

Recognizing Limits. This is huge. At any time and for a  variety of reasons (bad day at work, not enough alone time, not enough sleep/food/water, woke up on the wrong side of the bed, increased back pain for Richard), either one of us can feel overwhelmed and cranky. I recognize the signs when I need a break: I’m short-tempered, snap at anyone (including the cat) and have no interest in talking with anyone. Leave me alone when I’m at my limit (seriously, I am not pleasant). Thankfully, my husband understands this (most of the time) and knows to steer clear. When I realize I’m cranky, I have to figure out what is wrong and then take a break to correct it (eat something, take five minutes for myself) and it helps, even if for a little bit.

When Richard is at or past his limit, it is usually related to his back pain. He’s either done too much or has a flare-up. He knows when this is happening (usually a few minutes after the rest of us do) and he will take a nap, go to our bedroom to stretch his back or have some quiet time.

We both are learning to recognize when the other needs a break without being accusatory or nagging. “What the heck is the matter with you?” is not often said out loud in our house. (I’ve been known to think it a time or two, however).

Setting Priorities. Sometimes it feels as if I have a magical to-do list (and not in a good way). Every time I cross one or two items off the list, five more appear in its place. The to-do list is never, ever completely done which makes it a necessity to prioritize. Richard and I both understand that if we are at our limits (see above) but we still have to have dinner, give Robert his meds and get him ready for bed then it may be a night to order pizza. Sure, we prefer to have a healthy, home-cooked meal with green vegetables and fruit but sometimes the priority is giving ourselves a break instead.

Equal Division of Responsibility. This is very important to me. I don’t want to feel as if I am not contributing my fair share. Maybe it’s because we’ve been together for so long but dividing up the responsibilities when Robert moved in was seamless. I get Robert up in the morning and get him bathed and give him his clothes for the day. While he dresses, I unmake his bed and start a load of laundry. In the meantime, Richard makes decaf coffee for Robert and a mocha for me. (I’m spoiled!) He gets Robert’s breakfast ready and packs his lunch for Day Program. We share dog duty and both see Robert off to Program in the morning.

In the afternoon, Richard greets Robert when he gets home from Day Program while I’m still at work. He will clean up Robert if needed and gives him a snack and lets him watch television. When I get home, I give Robert his meds and start dinner. Richard does the clean up after dinner and I get Robert started on his bedtime routine of brushing his teeth, shaving and changing into pajamas and getting into bed.

There aren’t that many variations on the schedule (except hubby sometimes makes dinner – especially if it’s pancake night!). It feels like a very fair division of duties which makes us both happy and keeps Robert well-cared for.

Communication. I hesitate to even include communication as an important part of a successful co-caregiving team because it seems so obvious.  Common sense dictates Richard and I have to talk to one another in order to work as a cohesive unit. As simple of a concept that is, we do need occasional reminders. I am more than willing to admit we see a therapist every now and then to keep us on track and to work through any difficult issues that come up.

Asking for Help. I had planned to end with communication but realized something else contributes to our success as co-caregivers – being able to ask for help, either from each other or from an outsider. We see a therapist, we both get massages to help with stress and reduce Richard’s back pain and we ask one another if we can have a few hours away. Sometimes I will go shopping with my daughter or Richard will have coffee with his mom and brother or volunteer at the animal shelter. Both of us have taken up yoga and are okay asking the other one to stay with Robert while we attend a class. What we need to figure out next is how to get a break together!

It’s early in our co-caregiving journey so I am sure I will learn more of what makes us successful as we go along. In the meantime, the next post will focus on what challenges and pitfalls we’ve run into and how we manage to not get stuck there.

Please share your own co-caregiving tips for success!

Profile photo of Trish

About Trish

I am Robert’s older sister and a freelance writer and am also a full-time Legal Administrator for a wonderful law firm (no, that is not an oxymoron). I am the caregiver for my youngest brother, Robert, who has suffered from uncontrolled epilepsy his entire life. In his late-40s now, he lives with me and my husband. I have somehow managed to navigate the maze of social services and government programs available to help Robert and continue to be amazed at the amount of time and persistence that is needed to do so. Robert finds happiness in simple pleasures like doing word search puzzles and watching his favorite shows (Family Feud and Jeopardy, of course!)

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