Updated: Sep 29
Carol Bradley Bursack, Minding Our Elders
Don’t let the title scare you, folks. I’m not presenting a “system” here. Personally, I’ve never seen a chart or graph designed to help me organize my life that I didn’t intentionally ignore. “Systems” designed by experts never take my life or personality into consideration. Instead, they seem like cookie-cutter solutions intended only for organizing some dream life.
That being said, tips and thoughts from people whose experiences have closely mirrored mine, in at least some aspects, have been generally welcome. I like real life stories, and I like knowing how people make their lives work. If ideas are presented to me that way, I can gauge the flexibility of their “system” and see how it fits with their personality and lifestyle. This makes suggestions sound more authentic and less like demands that I “shape up” and act like other people. I can then learn from their experiences, take what works for me and ignore the rest free of guilt.
So, please take my suggestions in this manner. I’ve discussed some ideas with other caregivers, including those who care for elders and one man who cares for a child with disabilities. Our time management techniques aren’t that different. Although caregivers and their situations are unique, when we care for vulnerable people, we are surprisingly alike.
Expect the Unexpected
For me, the need to be prepared for anything is mandatory. During my heaviest caregiving years, I was raising two children (one with multiple health problems), caring for multiple elders (several of whom lived in a nearby nursing home), and working full-time.
Back then, a call to my work phone could mean that one of my elders was at the emergency room or that my son was very ill. It could be as simple as a quick errand or as serious as making the choice to begin hospice care. I must say that a ringing phone can still, at times, be a scary thing for me. Knowing that I was somewhat prepared for an emergency did have a calming effect to some degree. It still does. Here’s a little sample of my plan. Borrow and improvise to figure out what works for you.
My employer allowed me to take vacation time by the hour, so I hoarded every bit I could for use during emergencies and for medical appointments for those in my care.
I shopped as if I were preparing for a disaster, buying multiples of anything my loved ones could possibly want. They always seemed to need things taken care of immediately, and something inside of me made me think I had to deliver. I may have been a bit excessive about this since I threw away three bottles of my mother’s favorite makeup after she passed.
I kept food around that my sons could make for themselves, should I be called away to tend to one of the elders. Again, I often threw out over-stocked items, but having certain foreseeable needs met for as many people as possible meant I had less on my plate when something unexpected popped up. I felt better prepared and less frantic.
I filled prescriptions as soon as the insurance companies allowed. This overlap eliminated problems that would inevitably arise when one person needed a prescription filled, but I was too tied up with something or someone else to run and take care of it.
Techniques for Planning and Prioritizing Your Projects
Many of us have a to-do list that’s so long and overwhelming, we don’t even know where to start. This is sometimes called analysis paralysis. Say your mom wants you to organize her closet, but your kids need a school project finished and only you can help. Your employer wants you to get rolling on a “fresh new idea,” while the blank Medicaid application forms for your dad are sitting on your desk at home. All these projects are important and must get done. Where do you even start?
Write it down. That may seem obvious, but it does help. Make an initial list, but don’t worry about perfection or order yet. Just jot down everything that needs to get done so nothing’s overlooked.
Prioritize. If you have a lot on your initial list, make a second one that ranks the individual tasks in order of importance. Tasks that have a lot riding on them (your employment) and those with hard deadlines (the kids’ school project) should be placed at the top of your list. You may find that some of the more trivial tasks don’t even make it to this secondary list, which is good!
Bite off chunks. Realize that tasks don’t have to be done completely in one pass. Dad’s Medicaid forms need to be filled out accurately, but you don’t have to do it all in one sitting or even one day. Sometimes breaking a task into smaller steps can help you achieve a lot more over time.
Learn that good enough is good enough. Each and every task you attempt doesn’t have to be perfect. Expecting to do everything perfectly is my biggest time waster. I can’t get started if I think I have to do it all to perfection. Mom’s closet is a perfect example of something that can be done imperfectly. Just do enough to make her feel that you’re tending to her needs, then let the rest go.
Lower your standards. Normal daily standards often fall by the wayside while caregiving. This is acceptable. You’re likely working for several people here, so give yourself a break. The house doesn’t have to be spotless, you don’t have to have a home cooked meal every single night, etc. Rarely has dusty furniture or a frozen pizza killed anyone.
Find shortcuts that make you feel better. For example, a quick neatening up, even if it means tossing stuff in a closet, can help some people de-clutter their living spaces and their minds. A quick pass around the house can ensure your home is a source of comfort rather than distress. Let the true de-cluttering and deep cleaning wait until your life is less busy and running a little smoother.
Less is more. Try to help others learn this, too. Getting rid of stuff and not replacing it can be freeing. I know this is a hard concept to pass on to someone who can’t let go of anything or an elder who is now forced to give up so much. If you live your life with this philosophy (without trying to impose it on others), you’ll reap the benefits. You may even find some of that mentality gets passed along.
Get help. Remember that you’re only one person. You can’t do it all, and some support can make a huge difference. Delegate tasks to your spouse, your kids, a friend who offers to help, or even someone you hire. Routine work, like housekeeping and grocery shopping are excellent tasks to outsource. A cleaning service or grocery delivery service can check these things off your list and free up time for more important responsibilities that you need to handle personally. In-home care is an excellent option for help because professional caregivers can provide a variety of flexible services, including errands AND hands-on care.
Taking Care of Yourself
In a way, time management is a way of taking care of ourselves. Efficiency in doing for others can actually leave us more time for self-care. If we don’t prioritize our physical and mental health, we’ll become less efficient at all the other tasks on our plates. This can be as simple as taking a 20-minute nap in the afternoons. Frankly, self-care should be first on our “time management” list. I thought of that, actually, but I figured everyone would laugh and quit reading!
Do try it, however. Most of us are better people and better caregivers when we have a little time to relax and do something we enjoy. Working ourselves to the point of caregiver burnout doesn’t help anyone. If we look at our to-do list, we can surely find something to move lower on the list so we can scoot up our own medical appointments or mental health breaks a few spots. If we do that, the other tasks will fall into a more realistic order, or even get so low on the list that we can let them drop off altogether.
About Carol Bradley Bursack
Over the span of two decades, author, columnist, consultant and speaker Carol Bradley Bursack cared for a neighbor and six elderly family members. Her experiences inspired her to pen "Minding Our Elders: Caregivers Share Their Personal Stories," a portable support group book for caregivers.