Time Management Techniques for Caregivers

Facing myriad responsibilities both new and old, caregivers can benefit from time management techniques.
Pam Pilch was sitting by her son Jonathan’s hospital bed while he was in treatment for leukemia when the phone rang. It was her older son. He wanted to take guitar lessons.

Where would Pilch find the time to scope out a guitar teacher for him, and take him to and from lessons, and make sure he was practicing his new instrument — all on top of getting her middle son to soccer practice and handling Jonathan’s health needs and the countless other stresses of everyday life?

“An overarching theme among caregivers is how to juggle the responsibility to take care of a loved one and themselves, and not just the medical care but all these other more mundane household things that, when piled up, can become incredibly stressful,” says licensed clinical psychologist Allison Applebaum, the director of the Caregiver Clinic at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.

Pilch, of Richmond, Va., says that when her son was diagnosed at 2 ½ years old, the world came to a complete stop, except it didn’t.

“Treatment takes full priority. When you need to be at the hospital everything else has to yield, but in my case, I had two older children at home,” she says.

It won’t always be guitar lessons — it could be home maintenance, work responsibilities, personal finance or even just taking care of yourself — but no matter what the tasks are, time management while taking care of a loved one with cancer is a balancing act.

Letting Go

Pilch says the first step to successful time management is admitting that you can’t do it all and it may not all get done perfectly.

“You have to accept help,” she says. “Someone else may not put the dishes in my dishwasher the way I would have done it, but if the dishes got washed, who cares?”

Pilch says she called in grandparents and friends to help and, with the support of those around her, was able to get her son guitar lessons taught at the hospital. Years later, he still plays in a band.

“You’d be surprised how many people come out of the woodwork to help,” she says.

Staying flexible is also key. If you were someone before cancer who had to have your day run according to plan, Pilch says that will likely go out the window.

“You never know when you are going to wind up in the hospital for several days,” she says. “Don’t expect that you’re going to be able to control the things that come up.”

Keeping Track

Rachel Cannady, a behavioral scientist with the American Cancer Society, suggests creating a master list of everything that needs to get done — “a brain dump of everything that happens throughout the day.” Then, decide what needs to be done by you, and what can get done by others.

Prioritizing is crucial, Applebaum says. “Making sure their loved one gets their medicine on time may be a top priority, but making sure the lawn gets mowed can wait,” she says.

Good tasks to delegate are the practical ones, such as grocery shopping or cooking, adds Carly O’Brien, an oncology social worker with the caregiver program at CancerCare, an organization that supports patients.

“The reality is that this is something that cannot be done by one person,” Applebaum stresses. “Delegating and expanding the support network is something that is critical.”

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