What to Expect as a First-Time Caregiver

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Becoming a caregiver for a loved one is a big responsibility. You may not know what to expect or how to best prepare for this new journey. Rest assured — we've got you covered. Consider this expert advice to help you get ready for your new role.

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1. Understand your responsibilities — and lean on others for help

Taking on a new role as a caregiver can mean having many responsibilities. Along with caring for your loved one's needs, you may also have to coordinate their care, be in charge of their finances and living arrangements, provide transportation, and more. It's important to acknowledge what you are and aren't willing and able to be responsible for right from the beginning to avoid taking on too much.

"If a loved one is suddenly diagnosed with a condition that requires having a caregiver, it can feel very overwhelming to have to be the 'all to everything'," says Daniela James, a consultant for Resources For Living® at Aetna. "You may still have children you're responsible for, or grandchildren, or your own complex needs. It's a challenge to balance all of that in a way that is productive in taking care of your loved one and yourself."

You may feel that you can't care for all of your loved one's needs by yourself. That's where your support network comes in. "It's important to engage with others to support you so you're not the only person coordinating everything. That means reaching out to family members, neighbors, and friends. If everybody can pitch in a little bit, it really helps, especially if you're a new caregiver who hasn't had to do this before," says James.

Remember, you need support, too. Along with family and friends, caregiver support groups, both in-person and online, can help keep you from feeling isolated in your role. "Connecting with other people who are dealing with the same issues you're dealing with and sharing resources, feelings, and experiences is really helpful," says James.

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2. Get educated on your loved one's condition

To prepare to make the best decisions for your loved one's health and well-being — now and in the future — it's important to learn all you can about their condition, including treatment options, symptoms, and potential long-term effects. "Educating yourself about your loved one's condition helps you be an advocate for them," says James. Wondering where to find the best resources for this information? James says to join your loved one at their doctor appointments whenever possible. There, you can speak with the doctor about your loved one's health and ask any questions you might have. The doctor can provide you with educational materials, too.

3. Schedule "me time"

It's easy to forget about your own needs when you're focused on caring for your loved one each day. But caring for yourself goes a long way in helping you be a better caregiver.

"Make sure you're practicing good self-care — getting a good night's sleep, eating nutritious foods, and exercising. You really can't take care of somebody else very well if you're not taking care of your own basic needs first," says James.

Taking care of yourself also means seeking your own care when you need it. "Talk to your doctor if you're starting to feel that stress is impacting your own personal health. Make sure you're reaching out for help just like you would for the person you're caring for," says James.

4. Learn how your health plan can help

When it comes to supporting caregivers, your health plan may have a lot to offer. For example, some Medicare Advantage plans have programs that can connect you with caregiver support groups and other community resources in your area. These programs may also provide you with educational materials. Check with your plan to see what types of support it offers caregivers and lean on those resources as needed.

As a caregiver, you may have to juggle a lot of responsibilities. But you're never alone. "There are a lot of different programs and options for support," says James. "Always remember that you don't have to be the only person carrying the load of responsibilities."

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