Caring for a loved one with cancer can include as many components as a regular job. The challenge is to meet these myriad responsibilities while preserving energy for yourself and your family. Below are some key things to be aware of as you undertake this important role.
Legal and Financial Planning
Make sure you know what your loved one’s wishes are with regard to treatment, care and financial matters, in the event he/she is unable to handle such decisions and/or execute transactions. By extension, you’ll want to make sure that all relevant legal documents are in order, such as a healthcare proxy, power of attorney, and last will and testament. Most hospitals request that patients fill out a healthcare proxy form. If you have questions, ask to speak with a social worker on staff. As for the other documents, it can be useful to consult with an attorney.
Caregiving at Home
Asking for and accepting help, being able to delegate, and learning to simplify are three principles that most caregivers cite as key to surviving the “marathon” of caregiving.
First, caregivers must trim their expectations of what they can accomplish. Then, they need to prioritize their needs. For instance, it can be extremely difficult to care for your ill family member, handle all regular housekeeping duties and be the “fun” parent on the weekends. To help ease the load, consider hiring a housecleaning service once or twice a month or asking a family friend to take your child to the playground. When a neighbor offers assistance, have a list of possible tasks you can choose from, such as mowing the lawn, walking your dog or making a casserole for your freezer. Remember, friends and neighbors also want to feel useful. Accepting help is a way to include them in the process.
Caregiving at the Hospital
You won’t always know in advance when your loved one needs to go to the hospital. So it can help to have a bag ready, in case you need to make an emergency trip. Magazines, pre-downloaded music or podcasts, even a small cooler with snacks can be welcome amenities in the sometimes-alienating hospital environment. If your loved one has a scheduled surgery, consider asking a family member or friend to accompany you, but be honest with yourself about your relationship with that person. For example: Does your sister deal with anxious situations by gossiping about other family members? If so, that may be more challenging than being alone in the waiting room.
The Medical Team
Identify a point person among your loved one’s healthcare team with whom you feel comfortable — and who will return your calls promptly. This can be a nurse or even an office manager who can help with insurance questions or relay to the doctors your concerns about treatment. And remember that “personality isn’t everything” — a highly competent and busy physician may not always have the greatest bedside manner, but he/she may the best, most qualified person to care for your loved one.
The Family Factor
Cooperating with siblings, in-laws and parents can be stressful for you as the primary caregiver. It is important to steer clear of old rivalries and keep the ill person’s needs in the forefront. If differences develop, consider consulting with a social worker who can mediate and help identify a course of action.
Taking Care of You
You, as primary caregiver, are the pole supporting the tent. Amid all the to-do’s, it’s critical that you carve out time for self-care. Some ideas: Join an online or in-person caregivers support group, schedule regular calls/video chats with friends to “vent,” use your lunch hour to recharge yourself with a bike ride, walk or massage.
Caregivers report that it’s important to remain positive and spontaneous during their loved one’s cancer treatment. Many advise accepting fewer social invitations, since this can lead to disappointment if side effects from chemotherapy or an impromptu trip to the doctor sidelines your loved one. When he or she is feeling better, you can take a day trip or do one of your favorite activities. Building memories is important during this time of hardship — perhaps even more so than usual. Maximizing “together time” can be as simple as taking a scenic drive on your way home from the the doctor’s office or stopping for lunch at a favorite restaurant.