Caring for a loved one can be overwhelming—these expert tips from the Area Agency on Aging of Northwest Michigan help prevent burnout and set you up for success.

This article first appeared in Traverse, Northern Michigan's Magazine. Find this article and more when you explore our digital issue library. Want Traverse Magazine delivered to your door or inbox monthly? View our print subscription and digital subscription options.

Even the healthiest among us don’t know when an illness, diagnosis or injury will change our plans and the rhythm of our daily lives. And if that sudden health change happens to a loved one, we can find ourselves as caregivers, facing down an acute or chronic health condition that will change our lives and lifestyles.

Stepping into a brand-new role as a caregiver can be profoundly stressful as we grapple with the changes our loved one faces and find ourselves in a steep learning curve to provide the care they need.

“Every caregiving individual and situation is unique,” says Ronda Cram, director of community services for the Area Agency on Aging of Northwest Michigan. “There are common themes, but there’s never a one-size-fits-everything guide on how to do this right.”

However, Cram says there are fundamental strategies, guidelines and tips that will help any new caregiver transition into their role with confidence—and provide a better quality of life for both them and their loved one.

No. 1 | Caregivers Should Always Practice Self-Care

The term can sound a bit cliché, and the advice to practice self-care frustrating to those in situations where they are juggling caregiving, work, family, home life and more. “It absolutely takes a concentrated effort to do this,” Cram says. “But if you end up sick or burned out, you’re no good to yourself or anyone.”

To succeed, she advises making a conscious choice to incorporate a few things into your daily life:

  • Get plenty of sleep. Do your best to not burn the midnight oil “catching up” on all the many to-dos.
  • Eat well. Think of your food as fueling your caregiving; don’t skip meals.
  • Take a walk. Even if it’s only for 10 minutes, that time can get your blood pumping, clear your head and help you breathe.
  • Schedule time away, even in a crisis. If that means getting respite care or simply stepping away from the bedside to get a cup of coffee, you’ll be preserving yourself to carry on in the best way possible.

No. 2 | Develop a Routine

Creating a structure for your day helps both you and the person being cared for, taking the chaos and frustration out of having things occur haphazardly. Break down your day into meals, rest times, activities, necessary events like work or appointments, and keep it somewhere visual to help you both have a sense of stability. “Consistency helps set expectations, which lowers the potential for upset or burnout,” Cram says.

No. 3 | Find a Scheduling Tool that Works for You

“My thing is sticky notes,” Cram says. “I have a big board that I use with them to keep track of things, but everyone is different.” Find your own approach, whether that’s a whiteboard, a calendar, a bulletin board, a paper day planner or a calendar app on your phone to track to-dos, appointments and milestones.

No. 4 | Keep a Care Journal

There may be formal and informal caregivers coming in on different days, so write down pertinent info to share, such as if your loved one had a good day, or any notes about meals and appetites, sleep and mood. It helps all caregivers know what’s going on and track any patterns, and serves as a communication tool that allows you to step away and easily hand off relevant information.

No. 5 | Take Help When It’s Offered

“We all think we’re super-people,” Cram says, “but no one can go it alone. If someone wants to bring you a meal, say yes, and say it without guilt. Because if someone didn’t want to help, they wouldn’t offer.” Don’t be afraid to reach out and ask, too. Church groups, book clubs, neighbors, friends and coworkers can all be sources of a helping hand, a hot meal or just a listening ear.

Young hipster son with disabled father in wheelchair at park taking selfie with smart phone. Carer assisting disabled senior man.

No. 6 | Get Help with Meals Long-Term

“In most communities, there are home-delivered meal programs such as Meals on Wheels, but more options exist,” Cram says. An online program called Mom’s Meals ships frozen meals to your door. Meal kits like Hello Fresh and Blue Apron can help; some even offer meals for restricted diets. Sites like Caring Bridge or Meal Train can help you organize friends who wish to help and provide a meal, as well as coordinate other offers to help with things like trips to the doctor, yard work or house cleaning. Tip: Especially if you’re in a new or crisis caregiving situation, space out your requests for meals over time so you aren’t overwhelmed with them all in the beginning.

No. 7 | Let Go of Guilt

“It’s very difficult sometimes when you feel like you are not able to deliver on promises, such as ‘I’ll care for you at home, I’ll never put you in a nursing home,’” Cram says. Honor that you are giving your best effort and that sometimes that may not be enough, and you may need additional help. “Instead, reassure your loved one that you’ll do your best to see their wishes through.”

No. 8 | Find Support from Those Who Know what You’re Going Through.

“A lot of support groups have moved online,” Cram explains; not just because of Covid-19, but because internet-based groups have popped up that are readily accessible and more diagnosis-specific. Private Facebook groups dedicated to specific conditions are a wonderful place to start, and they usually have a sub-group for caregivers.

No. 9 | Reach Out for Help Sooner Rather than Later

The Area Agency on Aging of Northwest Michigan has counselors who are nurses and social workers ready to help sort through the stage of life that people are in, talk about future goals and draw out some of those questions to help you and your loved one plan ahead. They meet you at whatever point you currently find yourself. “In a crisis, we can help you get on a long-term path,” Cram says.

No. 10 | As A Caregiver, Give Yourself Credit

On some days the best you can do is just be there; other days you feel like you’re really hitting it out of the park. “Caregiving is difficult, and showing up for someone you love in this way is a meaningful thing,” Cram says. “Take the win, take the credit that you are doing everything you can do.”

For more information, guidance, resources, online classes and support, contact the Area Agency on Aging of Northwest Michigan on their website or call 231.947.8920.