Being a family caregiver 24/7 requires some serious time-management skills. Marc Lawrence shares his tips for getting organized and taking breaks when needed.
When I became a full-time caregiver after my wife’s stroke (five years ago now), I used various tools to help me keep track of the essential tasks, contacts, and information I needed for her and around the house.
These tools included legal pads, file folders, scratch pads, sticky notes, calendar entries, "To-Do" apps, a chalkboard, a whiteboard, spreadsheets, and me sending text messages to myself.
None of this stuff was very efficient. It was a haphazard process born out of immediate need, and I used whatever was quickly available. I didn't have the time or clarity of thought to be methodical about researching best practices or deciding on one solution. It was a mess. I was a mess.
But I have decades of experience managing complex projects in the IT industry. That requires discipline, and I've used many physical and computerized tools to keep track of IT tasks. I thought about using a project management program to manage my daily caregiving activities. I dismissed the idea, thinking it would be overkill. Boy, I was wrong.
Thankfully, my wife survived her stroke and my erratic behavior. Little by little, I whittled down all my tools to only the essentials. I have my online calendar, a growing paper file cabinet (there's no escaping paper), and a limited set of electronic and printed reminders.
I still have a lot to do, but some tasks became internalized over time - part of the daily routine. All the important stuff gets done, and my wife's needs have become more straightforward as her condition has stabilized.
The past three years or so were a period of relative stability. Our daily routine has held up well. Most of the time, I could avoid missing critical tasks, losing essential info, and feeling overwhelmed.
But, in the past year, I've noticed some changes. Some of my feelings and behaviors made me start worrying again about how well I could manage the day.
I struggled to remember new changes to our routine, for example. Basic tasks on the hygiene regimen - like showers - weren't happening as often as needed. I was missing more appointments, and overwhelm started creeping in again.
Note: Feeling exhausted is a constant; feeling overwhelmed is a warning.
Just past my 65th birthday, I noticed how my age plays a part in my declining ability to remember and focus - especially short-term.
In the time it takes for me to walk from one room to another, I can forget why I’m headed there. I'm sure this isn't early-onset dementia - more likely chronic stress, excessive multi-tasking, and natural aging. I'm not ready to look for a medicinal solution to this problem if it exists. So, yes, I may be in denial, but I'm going back to the basics by using a new set of tools to help keep me on track.
How tricky is time management when you're a caregiver? It depends!
If your loved one doesn't need much support, caregiving might be a walk in the park. In my case, my wife requires help with nearly every aspect of her life.
Imagine living your own life as well as someone else's life at the same time. Then add in the demands of a teenage daughter, and you get a sense of my challenges.
I wasn't particularly good at managing my own life before I became a caregiver. Time management issues, procrastination, and sleep deprivation were (and still are) chronic conditions.
It's a giant leap to take complete responsibility for someone else's life - far beyond getting married or becoming a parent. If I'm off my game, my wife's life is in danger, and I risk injuring myself. To reduce risks, I prioritize any potentially hazardous activities and worry less about day-to-day stuff.
Tasks that can be dangerous or even life threatening include:
When I transfer my wife from the car, forgetting to set the wheelchair brakes could cause her to roll down our steep driveway and into the pond. Seriously!
If I let her medication schedule slip, I risk her having seizures or other side effects. And, of course, there's the constant challenge of ensuring that she stays hydrated throughout the day.
But if I accidentally skip brushing her teeth, it’s comparatively not that big a deal.
There are plenty of tools to help with caregiving duties, and more are announced all the time. The simplest way to start is with a printed worksheet. You can fill in any repetitive tasks, make copies, and then add any other duties to a fresh sheet each day (see my version of a worksheet below).
If you're looking for a more technical solution, you can easily find various apps for your smartphone. The difficulty with this approach is that many of these products are not free and, worse, many are not good. While most offer a free trial, it's often not enough time to get a good feel for the product.
If you're not lucky with your choice, you may spend a lot of time and money starting over with each new app.
Success with these tools depends on their quality - but you also need the discipline to use them correctly.
After much experimentation, I’ve finally settled on a simple and mostly free solution. It involves a smartphone (which I had), a smartwatch (which I bought), and a combination of online calendar entries, tasks, and reminders.
It's not perfect, but it's easy, doesn't have many moving parts, and is consistent with how I manage the other aspects of my life.
In essence, I’ve reduced the management of my wife’s life to a calendar management issue. Everything goes on her online calendar as an event, reminder, or To-Do checkbox. Sure, there are plenty of unanticipated demands during the day, but I can always check the calendar to see how much these interruptions will impact the rest of the day.
I can still make mistakes. Sometimes, I ignore a reminder or put something on the wrong date. But thus far, this system is simple and reliable. It just requires being careful and disciplined.
Interestingly, I'm better at managing my wife's life this way than my own.
The most important advice I can offer is to remember to breathe! Feel that tension building in your neck and shoulders? Sensing more anxiety coming your way? Pulse racing? STOP. Take a breath!
One of the best reasons for using a smartwatch is that I get reminders from a meditation app to take a break and recenter myself. Stress and anxiety lead to mistakes. Staying calm and in control should be your focus.
Finding the right solution(s) to fit your needs may take time. You also may need to make adaptations as your loved one's needs change, but starting with a method is the best way to avoid madness.
Just remember that honing any time management system takes… time! Be prepared to spend some time each day looking over what you did during the day, what's coming up the next, and assessing how well the system works.
I do this in the evening after my wife goes to bed. It's a way to wind down and transition into "my time.” A small investment of time each day/night will help you be successful, stay calm, and carry on.
The information presented is solely for educational purposes, not as specific advice for caregiving or for the evaluation, management, or treatment of any condition.