5 practical skills to improve advocacy while providing care
In the article, “How to be an effective advocate for aging parents,” caregiving expert Amy Goyer shares five smart tips on looking out for your loved one’s best interests. 1
There are good reasons to consider Goyer’s advice. Besides being an authority on family matters and caregiving, Goyer is deeply involved in the life of her father, who is 93 and living with advanced Alzheimer’s disease.
The Role of Advocacy in Caregiving
Goyer begins the article by acknowledging the obvious: “Caregiving can be overwhelming.” Family members are typically involved in multiple aspects of their loved one’s life. From scheduling appointments and arranging activities to managing money, cleaning house, playing cheerleader, becoming a de-facto nurse—the list goes on and on. Caregiver burnout is all too common.
“Perhaps the most important role, though,” Goyer writes, “is advocate, as we ensure the best life possible for our family and friends when they are vulnerable.”
Yes, this is heavy stuff. Because in many important ways, the life of the people we care for is in our hands. Our job as advocates is to know how they’d like to be treated— and carry out their wishes whenever possible. We must always keep in mind the delicate balance between being helpful and respectful. 2 Plus, there are other aspects to what might rightfully be called a series of sacred trusts: taking responsibility for financial and legal issues, and making sure the person you are advocating for gets the best possible care and treatment.
If you haven’t been a health advocate before, the thought of doing it can be stressful. What’s more, the responsibilities for advocating for an elderly person tend to start out modestly and increase as time goes by. 3
But know this: being an advocate is a skill that can be learned. There are many traits for being a great caregiver that you can develop. That goes whether you are in your loved one’s home town or are a long-distance caregiver.
While it takes a measure of courage, there are also a variety of rich rewards from knowing you have what it takes to step up to the plate and do the right thing for someone who can no longer look out for themselves.
Five Important Skills to Support Your Advocacy Efforts
Amy Goyer suggests some common-sense approaches
- Effective advocacy begins with a little detective work. As Goyer puts it, “…sometimes the slightest shift in our loved one’s abilities, health, moods, safety needs or desires is an indicator of a much larger problem or health challenge, and catching those changes early can make all the difference.” Also pay attention to the care services they are getting. If it’s not up to snuff, make a change. To boost your observational chops, the writer recommends:
- Get enough rest.
- Develop a mindfulness or meditation practice.
- Keep a written record of what you see and hear.
- Organization. Tasks here include learning to “manage caregiving team members, make task lists and organize the mounds of paperwork associated with health care, legal and financial matters.” Whether this is keeping medication instructions handy or discussing financial issues with aging parents, organization is of the utmost importance. If you are not organized by nature, try:
- Enrolling in a course on getting organized
- Hiring a professional organizer
- Asking family members for help
- Downloading a caregiver-organizer app such as CareZone, CaringBridge or LotsaHelpingHands.
- Communication. In order to be successful you will need to communicate with a variety of people. This includes family members, health care providers and attorneys, among others. At times, maintaining effective communication means you’ll have to be willing to have difficult conversations. To optimize communication, remember:
- Good relationships are built on respect.
- While the subject of a conversation might be emotional, try to stick to the facts.
- Effective communication is grounded in active listening.
- Clarity and brevity are essential.
- Be sure to verbalize your appreciation regularly.
- Questioning. During his working years, Amy Goyer’s father was a professor. He had “a sign in his office that read, ‘Question everything.’” Now that her dad has Alzheimer’s, Amy ponders those words. She writes, “My family's doctors and service providers will attest that I ask plenty of questions!” To master the art of asking questions:
- Learn everything you can concerning your loved one’s situation.
- Bring a list of questions to every appointment.
- If you’re not clear on a response, don’t be shy about asking clarification.
- Keep a written record of each conversation.
- Tenacity. Becoming a successful health advocate is all about persistence. You may not always get the answers you want or wind up with an ideal result. But whatever happens, your job is keep on keeping on. After all, your loved one is counting on you. To develop a dogged persistence:
- Understand your goals and focus on solutions.
- Think about who’s around you. Associate with people who understand you and are in your corner.
- Become part of the wider caregiving community. Find a way to share your stories of success as well as failure.
- Be ever mindful of your attitude.
- Pay heed to these words of wisdom from Amy Goyer: “When caregiving knocks you down, get back up again. Resilience is success.”
The Rewards of Being a Healthcare Advocate
Becoming a health advocate for your parents in their older years can be one of the most valuable aspects of caregiving. While it’s filled with challenges and is at times even scary, developing the skills above — built upon a foundation of wisdom, compassion and persistence — can make advocacy one of the most important gifts you’ll ever give a loved one.