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Posted: March 21, 2008

Double Dose of Caregiving

Coping While Caring for More than One Loved One at a Time

“Plans are nothing; planning is everything.”
—Dwight D. Eisenhower

Like a roll of the dice, caregiving can take many unpredictable turns, bringing good fortune or bad to the lap of the caregiver. But how would you view the prospect of caring for two, or even more, aging family members at the same time? Could you handle it? Would you handle it?

This scenario is not far fetched, and an increasing number of caregivers are faced with the questions posed above, as the odds of juggling multiple caregiving assignments, or a succession of them, become more likely.

Your chances of being faced with a double dose of caregiving often lie in the math: With three out of five people over the age of 50 having parents who are still alive, the odds of eventually becoming someone’s caregiver are pretty high. Toss in longer life expectancy, and it becomes even more likely that many of us will find ourselves caring for not just one person, but two or even more people at the same time.

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Many scenarios will emerge -- we could be caring for our parents, in-laws, a spouse and a parent, or a combination of immediate and extended family members who need our help.

The implications are mind-boggling. Imagine being responsible not only for the details of your own life, but for those of two or more loved ones, as well. That’s two or more additional stacks of bills, bank statements, insurance questions, medical issues, doctor appointments, medications, home care and legal issues for you to manage.

There’s no crystal ball to show you what lies ahead, but you can be proactive about preparing for this possibility. Here are some ideas to help you gear up ahead of time and to manage on an ongoing basis if you find yourself caring for several loved ones at the same time:

Have “The Talk”
It may be difficult, but having “The Talk” with loved ones is perhaps the single-most important thing you can do to proactively prepare for the challenges of multiple caregiving. The Talk consists of having a heart-to-heart with each of your loved ones about finances, insurance, medical and legal issues, as well as their wishes regarding medical treatment and end-of-life care. The Talk is also your opportunity to tell your loved ones what you need in order to help them manage their affairs and honor their wishes.

Karen Cook of Paradise Valley, Arizona, can attest to how The Talk helped when she found herself caring for both her mother and her aunt, each of whom live nearby in separate homes. Both are in their 80’s and have Alzheimer’s, and the aunt has also suffered a stroke.

Karen told me, “Because we had ‘The Talk’, I was able to reassure both Mom and Aunt Katherine that I would make sure that their wishes were honored. They both gave me legal power of attorney, making it possible for me to take care of the business of their lives, especially once their Alzheimer’s advanced.”

Get Organized
Caring for multiple loved ones means digging in and fully understanding each person’s financial situation, monthly bills, bank accounts, medical records, insurance, and legal documents. Help yourself by creating separate files for each person’s information and keep them separate and organized at all times.

Calendar Management
When caring for more than one person, managing your time and energy become more essential. One key to effective time management is maintaining a well-organized calendar that encompasses your schedule and theirs.

Karen Cook strongly recommends keeping that calendar with you at all times. She told me, “I have my calendar with me every time I take Mom or Aunt Katherine to an appointment, because invariably we leave with follow-up appointments. If you have to go home to check your calendar and then try to call back later to set something up, you will waste a tremendous amount of valuable time.”

Factor in Extra Time
Even with good calendar management, unexpected situations will arise and things will take longer than anticipated. You can’t predict everything that can go wrong, but you can mentally prepare yourself to “expect the unexpected.”

For example, the bank required Karen’s aunt to present photo identification when they tried to add Karen’s name to bank accounts. Her aunt no longer had a driver’s license, so they had to take extra time to get her a picture ID. Because of this, what they had thought would be a short trip to the bank turned into all day outing.

To keep your schedule on track and your stress level in check, add on 20% to your time estimate for every appointment on the calendar and for every interaction with doctors, lawyers, banks, accountants, and insurance companies.

Take Care of Legal Issues
We’ve all heard horror stories about situations that arise because a loved one’s legal wishes weren’t understood. To avoid these emotionally draining and time-consuming problems later, make sure that your loved ones have legally executed wills, as well as living wills and directives that specify their wishes regarding medical and end-of-life care. Make extra copies of all legal documents, and safeguard originals in a bank safety deposit box.

Obtain power of attorney sooner rather than later, because once loved ones start to fail they may be unable to execute documents that will allow you to sign checks or make decisions on their behalves.

Find out about Services
They say that knowledge is power. When caregiving for two or more, power can mean knowing immediately where to turn for help when you need it. Karen concurs, saying that the one thing she would have done differently was to find out what services were available to help her before she found herself already immersed in and nearly overwhelmed by her caregiving responsibilities.

To find out about caregiving programs and services in your community, contact the Area Agency on Aging Eldercare Locator at (800) 677-1116. They have information about volunteer caregiving programs, home care providers, adult day care, Meals on Wheels, senior centers, and other local services.

Caring for more than one person at a time will definitely have its challenges. Your time, energy, and patience will be stretched by snafus and emergencies. But there is much that you can anticipate and plan for. Thinking about these possibilities and preparing for them early on can save you time, headaches and heartaches down the road, and can help you manage through a very challenging time.

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Melissa A. Goodwin is a freelance writer and photographer living in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She has years of experience working with volunteer caregiving programs that help seniors and family caregivers. She can be reached at meesarj@msn.com.

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