It’s one of the most important roles we can play in another’s life. Here are some candid, first-hand tips for caregivers.

Featured in the Spring 2019 issue of Inspired Life. Get your copy.

So, yep, it’s me. Daughter-turned-caregiver for her mom. You hear stories about people like me. But until you’ve taken care of an aging parent, you really don’t get the hugeness of this responsibility. Some days I feel so blessed to get to spend time with my mom in this intimate way—as if I am the one honored to walk this wonderful woman to the door after a fabulous party … Other days? Well, yes, I have them.

Every person ages differently and has varied physical, financial and emotional needs. My mom seems pretty typical. At 87 years old she is darling, beautiful, has some short-term memory loss, macular degeneration, hearing problems and has lost a lot of strength and balance. So, the right solution for us is for her to live with me. And between my full-time career as managing editor of Traverse Magazine (and its sibling publications including this one), a small side-business and finishing raising my last child-just-turned-adult, I make sure that she is safe, warm, comfortable and has as much intellectual and social stimulus as possible. Sandwich generation you say? Make that a panini!

By trial and error I’ve found some things to make my caregiving work a little easier. Here are my top 10 tips for caregivers:

1. Haystacks Clothing

A morning doesn’t go by that my mom and I don’t thank Northern Michigan’s Lizzy Lambert for founding Haystacks, her line of colorful, stylish, comfortable, easy-to-put-on (no zippers or buttons), easy-care clothes. I’ve bought Mom at least a dozen interchangeable Haystacks outfits over the past two years. She looks fabulous in them (there’s never an age a girl stops wanting to look pretty, right?) and gets compliments everywhere she goes. Bonus: Lizzy and her team hand-cut and sew the clothing right here in Northern Michigan. 

Finding a warm coat my mom could fasten herself has been another huge problem I solved recently with the purchase of a wool toggle-fastening coat.

2. Get to Know Your Local Senior Services Center

These local governmental organizations go by various names but if you Google the words “senior services” and the name of your city or county you will find the one closest to you. Mine is Leelanau County Senior Services—and the folks who run it are very helpful. While my mom’s financial status disqualifies her for many of their services, there are plenty that she does qualify for, including the loan of a free wheelchair for as long as she needed it. They’ve also arranged a ride to an eye doctor appointment I couldn’t make, and put me in touch with the Michigan Bureau of Services for Blind Persons based in Lansing. The organization does home visits to assess the needs of people with sight disabilities, macular degeneration included.

3. Meals on Wheels

I can’t say enough about this federally subsidized program. Being half Ukrainian, my DNA believes I should be able to cook for at least half the world. But the reality is, I am often late getting home from work and running late in the morning—and then there’s lunch. Mom, who once was a stupendous cook herself, mostly just makes toast now. After she took a bad fall last spring and I was really scrambling, my daughter talked me into signing her up for Meals on Wheels. At first, Mom wasn’t sure at all about this service, and I envisioned mounds of wasted food. But who can resist a piping hot meal delivered by a small fleet of men (most of them seem to be in her case, at least) who are maybe just 10 years or so younger than one’s self? She loves it. I love it.

4. Gather Tips From a Professional Caregiver

I didn’t do this but wish I had thought to hire a professional even for just for a few days to train me in the easiest way to help mom get showered and dressed. Eventually, I’ve figured out where the grab bars should go, how to arrange her towels, what products work best for the best price and gizmos like that little thing that helps you put your socks on. But I would have saved time and trouble if I’d asked a pro in the first place.

5. Hearing Aids

Say what?! Say, yes! Your loved one needs to wear these if they have hearing loss. Insist on it. It might take a bit of holding your ground but after awhile the person in your care won’t want to be without them. It actually took my mom an entire year for her to realize how much better life was with her hearing aids in.

The science behind the relationship to hearing loss and cognitive deterioration and emotional isolation is very real. My mom’s cost plenty, and need the cursed pea-sized batteries and flea-sized filters—that obviously she can’t do herself. But more affordable, chargeable hearing aids are finally available and it would be well worth the extra research to find the best type for your loved one.

6. Alexa!

The hilarious video of seniors trying to use Alexa on Facebook is pretty real. But once they get the hang of how easy Alexa actually is, she is the best thing ever to happen to our aging demographic. After my mom learned that shouting at Alexa doesn’t compensate for calling her the wrong name, she got the hang of it. That opened up the whole world of audiobooks to her—since she can no longer read print. After she could no longer operate our microwave I purchased the new AmazonBasics Microwave that connects to Amazon’s Echo Dot. A re-heated Meal on Wheels goes a long way on a cold winter’s day.

7. Physical Therapy 

With all of the other medical appointments seniors need to get to, it’s easy to overlook physical therapy. But even a day or two a week can maintain your charge’s ability to handle steps and dress themselves. The good news is they don’t need to fall or suffer some other accident to qualify for Medicare coverage. Doctors can prescribe physical therapy on the basis of balance and strength issues.

8. Emergency Call/Medical Alerts 

The new era of these uses GPS (so your charge is covered wherever he or she goes), fall detection systems and operators who stay on the line until help arrives. Your local senior services office and online research can help determine the right features and monthly price for your loved one. Of course, the variable is whether your charge will actually wear it or remember—or is even able—to use it if they need it. If you do get one, I suggest reminding your charge about it and how to use it every morning.

9. What help can you afford?

While we can’t afford a constant companion for my mom, or even someone to come in and help her get dressed, I have budgeted for house cleaning help and that feels huge. I use so I can shop Meijer online and have the groceries delivered. I never turn down help either, even if it is someone who offers to help her in from the car for me. I appreciate every saved chore and helping hand.

10. Caring for the Caregiver

One of the toughest things is to take time for you, and trusting it is the right thing to do. Personally, watching my mother’s struggle with strength and balance, I have doubled my Pilates schedule (thanks, Jen at Pure Pilates!). After a year of trying to control my blood pressure/hypertension naturally, I gave in to my doctor and went on meds. Should have done it a couple of years ago!

And sometimes the caregiver just needs a break. This New Year’s Eve I took a mini vacay for the night, 20 miles away. It was the first time in several years I had left my mom with anyone but my brother (who travels from the East Coast to spell me) or my aunt who is 12 years younger than my mom and lives downstate. 

I was confident my mom could put herself to bed and dress in the morning (thanks to physical therapy)—as long as everything was organized to a T. Nevertheless, she needed to be checked on. My wonderful son was home from college and he and his equally wonderful friends promised they would poke their heads into her room in the evening and morning. In the end, they wound up staying in, to be close to her. When my mom woke up in the morning she was greeted by eight sleeping 20-somethings sprawled all over the living room. She felt like a queen.

Sometimes that panini brims over with unexpected blessings, doesn’t it?

Photo(s) by Josh Hartman