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Privacy is something most of us value. Healthcare information privacy is unique in that there are federal privacy laws that must be followed. Whether you are a family member, or anyone else, a person’s healthcare information is protected. This is called HIPAA (The Health Insurance and Portability and Accountability Act). You have probably seen this when you have visited your healthcare provider. The portion of the act that involves privacy dictates that healthcare entities must keep your health information safe and private.

Only the patient themselves can give permission for a health care provider to share health information. No one wants their health information shared without their permission! When using a professional caregiver, it's important that they know all pertinent health information about your loved one. But how do you maintain privacy for both parties when such personal information is disclosed?

5 Ways to Protect a Loved One’s Privacy When Working with a Professional Caregiver

A special bond forms between a client and a valued caregiver. A good caregiver has knowledge about your family member’s health status. This is natural, beneficial and allows the caregiver to do their job. But steps should be taken to protect that information from others. It is better to lay some ground rules early to prevent a breach of privacy. Some ideas include:

  1. Share only health information with a caregiver and care manager that is necessary for them to do their job. At the time, remind them that this information is private.
  2. Do not leave personal health information or passwords out for anyone to see. Keep those in a safe and secure location.
  3. Caution a caregiver or care team about sharing any personal information about your loved one. Be specific about if it is ok to share information with certain people. If your loved one is of sound mind, they can make the decision about who to share information with. However, if your family member has dementia, it may be best for the healthcare power of attorney to make those decisions.
  4. There may be occasions when a caregiver is in a healthcare setting with your loved one. It is important for the caregiver to inform the provider that health information be shared with a designated family member and/or the designated care team.
  5. Slips may happen. This is no reason to throw the baby out with the bathwater! We all make mistakes and a breach of privacy is a teaching moment for a caregiver.

4 Ways to Protect the Privacy of Your Professional Caregiver

In my experience as a geriatric care manager, this is a much more difficult task then it may seem. Your loved one and a caregiver may spend many hours together. Your loved one may have a natural curiosity about the person taking care of them. This is normal, but I have seen situations where this can lead to inappropriate behavior from both family member and caregiver. An example:

Bill lost his wife about a year ago and has needed help in his home. He hired a caregiver, Sandy, who assists with shopping, cooking, cleaning and transportation. Bill adores Sandy and as time goes on, he asks about her personal life. Sandy feels obligated to answer Bill’s questions honestly. Sandy tells Bill that she is a single mom, and sometimes struggles to make ends meet. She talks about her divorce and the strain it has put on her small family. Bill feels terrible about Sandy’s situation and starts to offer her cash saying, “no one needs to know about this. I want to help you and we can keep this between ourselves.” This puts Sandy in a position where she has to refuse her employer, something she may worry could cause her to lose her job.

Situations like these happen. A senior may feel they are supporting their caregiver when in reality, they are putting them in a tough position. In fact, most of the time it can be hard to tell if a professional relationship has crossed a boundary. What can you do to protect the privacy of a professional caregiver?

  1. A good agency should provide training for their caregivers on professional boundaries. Ask the agency about how they handle situations like the example above.
  2. Talk to your loved one about their own boundaries. Remind them not to ask a caregiver personal or private questions that could put them in an uncomfortable situation. It is a fine line between being friendly and interested versus inappropriately probing.
  3. The caregiver agency should make it clear that accepting cash and gifts are never appropriate. Any such requests should be cleared through the agency manager, so ask the agency what their policy on gifts is.
  4. Encourage the caregiver to come to you and their agency manager if they feel uncomfortable in the relationship. Likewise, your family member should also express any concerns they have about the nature of the relationship.

Getting to Know One Another (Without Crossing Professional Boundaries)

Now you have a clearer idea of how to protect privacy, on both sides. With that being said, what are some appropriate topics to discuss? After all, your loved one and their caregiver will likely spend a good deal of time together. They'll want to get to know each other and enjoy the relationship they share. A good care plan will include detailed information about your loved one so those topics are already covered. It's a good idea to share some information about your loved one with the caregiver prior to their first day. This information can provide topics of conversation that the caregiver knows your loved one will enjoy. Possibilities include, but are not limited to:

  • Hobbies and other areas of interest, such as travel
  • Past work experiences
  • Family history and places lived
  • Ideas for current activities that the family member and caregiver can do together

On the other hand, your loved one may need some help with ideas on what to talk about with the caregiver. Here are some appropriate questions to ask a caregiver:

  • What do you like most about caregiving?
  • How did you come to choose caregiving as a profession?
  • What are your favorite books/movies/music?
  • What are some things you enjoy doing when you are not working?

Establish communication ideas and boundaries early on. This will enhance the caregiver relationship and will the chances of any embarrassing privacy breaches for everyone involved.

About the Author(s)

Amanda Lambert is the owner and president of Lambert Care Management, LLC which provides care management for older and disabled adults. She is the co-author of Choose Your Place: Rethinking Home as You Age (November 2020) and of Aging with Care: Your Guide to Hiring and Managing Caregivers at Home (Rowman and Littlefield, 2018). She has worked for over 20 years in the senior-related industry including mental health, marketing and guardianship. She has a passion for topics related to health, wellness and resilience as we age.

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