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As I interviewed people who are known in demographics as "unpaid caregivers," I thought I'd hear a few logistical hints. But that turned out to be like seeking just a few general rules on "how to heal sickness" or "controlling bad emotions." Every aging-parent scenario is unique, and there are precious few generalities that apply. One thing I can say is that you'll have fun with the responsibilities of eldercare if you enjoy running the high hurdles while juggling angry badgers. If not, you might try these techniques.

Trust your intuition about how much care is needed.


"There are hundreds of lines between being a little daffy and needing constant supervision," says Polly, describing her father's Alzheimer's. "At first my dad wasn't totally out to lunch; he was just...snacking. Then he definitely went out to lunch, then breakfast, then dinner. I've had to trust my instincts to increase care as he crossed each new line."

Denial is potent and seductive when it comes to dealing with aging. No one wants to acknowledge that a family member is in permanent decline. But when your parent gets really sick, or begins, um, lunching out, you'll feel an uneasy warning from your gut. Pay attention. The sooner you acknowledge the truth—"I must intercede"—the sooner you can begin exploring care options. And there's a mess of exploring to do.

Prepare for a logistical wilderness.

There's no rule book to guide you through the morass of eldercare tasks and demands. Your best source of information is the Internet, where you can e-mail friends and family and research everything from buying walkers to curing constipation. If you're a caregiver and you don't like computers, get over it. Buy a laptop—it will cost far less than the mistakes it will help you avoid—and make some 8-year-old teach you to cruise the Web. Everyone I interviewed, even the technophobes, told me that the Internet was a lifeline in negotiating eldercare obligations.

Online information can prepare you—sort of—for the pragmatic tasks you may encounter: filling out medical paperwork, hiring a care nurse, wrestling the car keys out of a beloved parent's desperate clutches. Many of these duties will be indescribably difficult. But if instincts and information tell you to take a step, take it firmly, without second-guessing, the way you'd lead a frightened horse out of a burning barn. And don't try to manage everything alone.

Create your own village.

The Navajo and other traditional cultures understand that there's nothing more soulful than supporting people at the margins of life, those who can't walk fast or talk sense or remember how to use a toilet. They also know that this takes a village.

It really does.

Most eldercare providers in our village-less society end up jury-rigging systems of helpers. The common refrain I heard from people in the trenches? Take notes. Write down every bit of advice you get, from every person who interacts with your family member: doctors, pharmacists, neighbors, hairstylists. Write down these people's contact information. For good or evil, they're your village.

Jennifer has 45 people on her call list should her elderly parents encounter a crisis. Polly rallied support from her parents' church congregation. Not everyone in the village will help care for an elderly person, but a long list gives you multiple possibilities for support.

"No one can tell you what to expect," Anne said to me. "You have to live like a firefighter, ready to call other firefighters to solve whatever problem arises."

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