How to Take Care of Parents: Closing Skill Gaps

Family caregivers ask the question, “how to take care of parents?”

Being a family caregiver is like being an innocent victim in a Stephen King horror film. You know something unexpected is about to happen, but you don’t know what it is or how you will react.

Learning skills for how to take care of parents are more than family caregivers imagine. This family caregiver skills checklist lists obvious and not-so-obvious caregiver skills that are essential for how to take care of parents.

Learn about common gaps and learning opportunities to make your caregiving experience easier.

Caregivers Believe They Can Do It All

Caregivers believe they can do it all. Family members new to caregivers look at me with that deer in the headlight look, so innocent and naïve. They have no idea of the responsibilities and time commitment they accepted—otherwise they would probably have said no and run as far as possible in the other direction.

Fortunately for aging parents, spouses, grandparents, and others, caregivers have little idea of the skills needed to caregive. By the time the caregiving needs of an aging parent or spouse have advanced, it is too late for caregivers to back out. At this point, caregivers are deeply involved, committed, and admit to feeling overwhelmed.

The good news is that most caregivers readily accept the responsibility, the stress, and loss of life balance out of love for aging parents or a spouse. But love doesn’t mean that adult children or other family members know how to care for aging loved ones.

Caregiver Skills Checklist: Gap #1

Caregivers don’t realize that caregiving involves making healthcare decisions. Initially, when the health of loved ones is stable, the necessity to make medical decisions is infrequent and the decisions are low-risk.

As time progresses, and the health of loved ones declines, making medical decisions becomes a routine task and a much-needed skill. The consequences of the decisions being made become more significant. A poor decision leads to poor care for aging loved ones.

As a care manager, court-appointed guardian, and medical power of attorney, it was my responsibility to make healthcare decisions for my clients. Caregivers fail to realize the high level of responsibility that was accepted when they are appointed guardian or conservator, or medical or financial power of attorney.

Caregivers are also low-skilled at negotiating with and navigating the system of healthcare providers. Many caregivers fail to follow through with medical recommendations and tests because they don’t understand the significance and long-term effects.

Other caregivers take information from doctors provided as gospel, never questioning the information until loved ones are suffering from harm. Regardless of the recommendation from the doctor, a thorough understanding of the next steps and the consequences is important.

Health Literacy Rates Are Low Placing The Care of Aging Loved Ones At Risk

A study completed by the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services confirms that caregivers and adults have poor health literacy skills. Here is an excerpt from the study (1):

Health literacy—the ability to obtain, process, and understand basic health information and services to make appropriate health decisions—is essential,

Limited health literacy isn’t a disease that makes itself easily visible. You can’t tell by looking. Health literacy depends on the context. Even people with strong literacy skills can face health literacy challenges, such as when:

  • They are not familiar with medical terms or how their bodies work.
  • They have to interpret numbers or risks to make a health care decision.
  • They are diagnosed with a serious illness and are scared or confused.
  • They have complex conditions that require complicated self-care.

This brief summarizes key findings and presents some policy implications of the first-ever National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL). These findings include:

Only 12 percent of U.S. adults had proficient health literacy. Over a third of U.S. adults—77 million people—would have difficulty with common health tasks, such as following directions on a prescription drug label or adhering to a childhood immunization schedule using a standard chart.

Caregiver Skills Checklist: Skill Gap #2

Financial skills related to estimating costs of care are the second skill gap. Learning that Medicare does not pay for the type of care that most aging adults need often comes as an unpleasant surprise.

Caregivers and aging adults experience sticker shock when becoming aware of the costs of care for in-home caregivers, assisted living communities, and nursing homes. Little thought of preventative actions that can be taken today to reduce future care costs occurs.

The United States has become a “now” society. Instead of thinking about retirement and future care needs, money is spent for today, not thinking about tomorrow.

Caregiver Skills Checklist: Skill Gap #3

Legal awareness of the need and reasons to appoint a power of attorney is lacking. This includes understanding the responsibilities of a power of attorney in fact. Being listed as the name on the power of attorney document often comes as a surprise to the family member appointed.

How much better would care be if an ongoing relationship of care happens between the aging adult and a power of attorney in fact? Having a person to help with care needs and to advocate with medical professionals for healthcare needs is a benefit. Especially when health literacy rates are low, and confusion and fear exist about a medical diagnosis or recommended procedure this additional support can make a major difference in the type and extent of medical care and treatment received.

For solo agers or elder orphans, preventative planning for care needs is even more important. When no family exists, plans must be made to appoint a professional or a trusted friend to be responsible for managing care.

Caregiver Skills Checklist: Skill Gap #4

Navigating the healthcare system using strong interpersonal skills is the fourth gap. Calls to make medical appointments, order prescriptions, and schedule tests are common for aging parents.

Caregivers are oblivious to the idea of a care team. Caregivers tell me that they are the only person caring for a loved one.

I surprise caregivers by telling them that they probably have a care team that they should be managing. Another deer in the headlights look.

Doctors, nurses, family members, pharmacists, and others are part of the care team for an individual. Not realizing that the main caregiver or power of attorney in fact has the responsibility of coordinating information and managing care is detrimental to the care of loved ones.

Care teams work better when everyone involved is working toward the same goal. In this situation, the caregiver would benefit from strong interpersonal skills and experience managing or working with a team.

Other Skills

Other skills that are easier to add to a caregiver checklist are the more obvious skills of patience, understanding, compassion, and empathy. Managerial skills like follow through, organization, planning, and achieving goals are always beneficial to the care situation.

Looking for More Tips to Take Care of Aging Parents? Find Answers to Questions Caregivers Ask on The Caring Generation Podcasts.


(1) America’s Health Literacy: Why We Need Accessible Health Information. An Issue Brief From the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. 2008.

More information about caregiver support and caregiver courses is available HERE.

© 2019 Pamela D. Wilson, All Rights Reserved.

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