Caregiver tips: How to be a master communicator

Managing someone’s medical care calls for a lot of conversations — with doctors, family members, and, of course, the care recipient. Having these caregiver tips at the ready will make even the toughest conversations easier.

Before you became a family caregiver, what did you think the most difficult part of the job might be? Maybe it was changing bandages or keeping track of medications. Or perhaps it was helping with physical therapy. Of all the things that came to mind, you probably didn’t predict how hard it can be just to talk about everything involved in caregiving.

In fact, communicating — with doctors, family members, even your care recipient — is one of the most challenging parts of caregiving. It’s also one of the most important. If you need some guidance on navigating it all, help is here. Use these expert caregiver tips to make even the toughest conversations easier. 

1. Be assertive, not angry

Sometimes being a caregiver means advocating in the face of adversity. You might get pushback from doctors, family members, or the loved one you’re caring for. In these moments, try not to think of disagreements as arguments. Being assertive does not mean you are being “bossy” or “aggressive,” says Lezlie D. Poole. Poole is the program innovation manager at the Rosalyn Carter Institute for Caregivers in Georgia.

Do you know a clash is coming? Try role-playing the conversation with another member of your care team, Poole suggests. This lets you think through challenges that may come up. You can start to think about solutions ahead of time.

Standing your ground with a doctor or nurse can be especially nerve-racking. “Before speaking, take a deep breath. Remind yourself that you and the medical staff are really on the same team,” says Daria Sawochka. Sawochka is a caregiver specialist at Sound Generations in Seattle. “You need their expertise to ensure your care receiver is as healthy as they can be.”

Did you know that many health insurance plans offer free programs that help members manage stress and anxiety? Reach out to your health plan for their offerings.

2. Make lists ahead of time

Before each doctor appointment, write down a list of every question, update, and concern you want to discuss. That way you won’t leave the office and realize you missed an important issue you meant to talk about.

A list can also come in handy during big conversations with your loved one. “We often tell caregivers to make a list of what the objectives and outcomes need to be,” says Poole. It helps caregivers stay focused so they don’t miss important details, says Poole. And that helps them steer the conversation in a productive direction.

3. Take on a practical mindset

Hard conversations around things like end-of-life care, wills, and finances are bound to come up. “Think of them as important, normal conversations that we must have at some point,” says Poole. They are not “bad” or “negative,” Poole stresses. Instead, they’re necessary. They help you advocate for your care recipient’s wishes.

Start difficult conversations with phrases such as, “I want to make sure we talk about this so we can respect your wishes for care and end-of-life choices,” suggests Poole. Or “I want to make sure that I know, as your caregiver, what you want and how I can make sure those things happen.”

4. Keep good records

An important part of a caregiver’s job is keeping key people up to speed on the care recipient’s well-being. “A good caregiver will be in communication with the family so there are no surprises,” says Stephen Peck, founder of Caring Men Global. Peck stresses that you have to keep the rest of the family abreast of what’s going on. So you want to be ready to answer questions when they come up.

Doing that requires keeping a correct and current record of progress, changes, and other things you’ve seen. It could be in the form of a daily journal. Or you could use a more templated care plan.

A digital health management app like Wellframe offer caregiver tips and resources that make it easy to record and share important health information. Many health plans offer Wellframe to their members for free. To find out if you have Wellframe, ask your insurance provider.

5. Advocate for yourself, too

“As a caregiver, you will be overwhelmed and need help,” says Poole. It’s natural to have negative feelings and bad days, Poole stresses. “Do not be afraid to be honest and ask questions.”

If you feel your care recipient is not taking your thoughts and concerns seriously, remember: Getting defensive or pointing fingers won’t help. Try to stay away from “you” language, such as “you never listen to me,” Sawochka says. Instead, switch to “I” statements.

Try: “I need you to let me know you understand what I’m saying. Even if you still disagree with me, I need to know you hear me.” This approach can help your loved one see your point of view. And that will remind them that you have their best interests at heart.

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