I’m a new caregiver, how do I get started?
8 ways to make caregiving more rewarding and successful
By Amy Goyer
Have your loved ones had a sudden health crisis, like a stroke, a fall, or a heart attack? Or were they diagnosed with a chronic health condition that requires you to increasingly provide support? Are you assisting them through surgery and treatment? Perhaps you recently had a child born with a disability. You may not realize it, but you are a family caregiver.
Regardless of how you became a family caregiver, when you’re new to it, it can feel overwhelming, daunting, and confusing. Rest assured, millions of other family caregivers are walking the path ahead of you, ready to help support and guide you. Here are some tips to help you get organized and succeed as a caregiver – and even find fulfillment in the role.
1. Acknowledge the emotions
If you are new to caregiving, you may experience a roller-coaster of emotions. In fact, you can probably expect your emotions to get quite a workout when caregiving. Practice acknowledging and expressing them in healthy ways – feeling them fully, then allowing yourself to move on. You’ll find more tips about managing the emotions in our article, I’m exhausted and stressed out…how do I get help?
2. Be aware of your mindset
Check in with yourself regularly and evaluate your mindset. Ask yourself: am I coming from a victim mentality, a viewpoint of lack (where there will never be enough), a fear-filled approach, or pure anger? Am I coming from a mindset of love, cooperation, a common goal, hope, faith, or optimism? Don’t judge your mindset, just be aware of it. Then think about what your mindset is doing for you. Is it helping the situation? Is there another viewpoint or perspective that would be more productive and helpful for you?
3. Educate yourself
You may feel like you’ve stepped into a foreign land where people are speaking a language you don’t understand. That’s understandable, especially if you haven’t had much experience in the health care field. Start learning about your loved ones’ health conditions and treatments. Find out about services that can be helpful. See if there is medical equipment that can help. Enlist friends and family to do research for you (a great task for family members at a distance or friends who want to help). Don’t be shy – ask questions of health care and service providers. A big part of your role is to advocate for your loved ones and for yourself. You are the world’s greatest expert on them!
4. Connect with other caregivers
Family caregivers learn the most from each other — and get the most understanding support too. Start connecting with others in similar situations right away. Talk in the doctor’s waiting room. Connect with friends who have experience with caregiving. Go to in-person caregiver support group meetings and join an online caregiving group on social media (bonus – you can access social media any time). Be sure to share what you are learning too!
5. Address safety
Keeping your loved ones safe is a top priority, and often one of the earliest tasks for caregivers. If your loved ones are in the hospital, talk with their physical and occupational therapists and social worker/discharge planner about what needs to be in place when they go home. If they are living at home, evaluate home safety basics like fall hazards, easy entrance/exit from the home, grab bars, raised toilet seats, shower safety, stairs, and lighting. Are your loved ones driving safely?
6. Create a caregiving plan
Put together a framework for how you and your caregiving team will approach caregiving. It can help you feel a bit more secure and on top of things. It doesn’t have to be fancy, but it’s helpful to have some things in writing so it’s easier to go back to it and adjust as needs and resources change. To learn more about how to create your plan, check out our article, How Can I Create a Caregiving Plan? 10 Steps Every Caregiver Needs to Take.
7. Create a self-care plan
Since you’re a new caregiver you have the advantage of purposefully setting a goal for yourself – from the start – to take self-care just as seriously as you do care of your loved ones. When you put yourself at the bottom of the list, you’ll stay there. And burnout will creep up on you. Write a list of things that you can do on a regular basis to care for yourself. Small things like getting a cup of coffee and big things like planning to take time away from caregiving. Above all, prioritize sleep. We lose our ability to cope emotionally or physically when we are physically exhausted. Learn more about care for the caregiver in our article, I’m exhausted and stressed out…how can I get help? Also, see this Real World Health Care blog post, Caregiving Expert: Fill Your Tank, to learn more about my own system for taking care of myself which I developed while I was caregiving for my parents and my sister.
8. Prioritize and do the next thing
There will be times when you look at your to-do list and feel completely overwhelmed and frozen. Take a few deep breaths. Prioritize (or always keep re-prioritizing, given current circumstances) and just focus on the next thing. Reel your mind in from the big picture (you’ll get back to it when you need to) and do the next thing in front of you. After that, you’ll do the next thing, and the next, and the next. One moment at a time. You’ve got this!
- AARP Family Caregivers Discussion Group on Facebook. A group of more than 14,000 family caregivers sharing tips and support, problem-solving, and venting.
- Caregiver Glossary (AARP) Definitions for the most confusing acronyms and terms.
- Caregiving 101: On Being a Caregiver (Family Caregiver Alliance)
- The Eldercare Locator website or toll-free helpline 800-677-1116 is available to help you navigate to programs and services provided for older adults and family caregivers at the state and local levels.
- The Emotional Side of Caregiving (NAC)
- Falls Prevention for Older Adults (NCOA)
- Getting Started: A Guide for New Mental Health Caregivers (Mental Health America)
- HomeFit Guide (AARP) provides a room-by-room checklist and tips for making a home safe.
- How to Be an Effective Advocate for Aging Parents (AARP)
- National Family Caregiver Support Program (U.S. Administration on Aging) is a federally funded program administered by the states and area agencies on aging and provides services and supports for family caregivers.
Amy Goyer is a nationally known caregiving expert and author of Juggling Life, Work, and Caregiving. A passionate champion for caregivers, she has also been one her entire adult life, caring for her grandparents, parents, sister, and others. Connect with Amy on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.