MDA ALS Caregiver's Guide

March 2013

Download a printable PDF of the entire guidebook PDF Document


The Journey

If you’re reading this guide, it’s probably because someone you care about deeply has ALS.

This guide will help you to help your loved one through the progression of the disease. It also will help you with your own journey as an ALS caregiver.

Being a caregiver for a person with ALS is emotionally and physically strenuous, but also deeply rewarding in highly personal ways. It’s different from caring for a person with any other disease, and may be far more emotionally and physically demanding than other caregiving journeys. ALS caregivers have called the experience life-changing and found that it strengthens character, deepens compassion and brings relationships to new levels of love and trust.

And it’s really hard work. It involves learning about new tasks and equipment, while going through the emotions that arise when a loved one has a progressive, debilitating illness. These pages contain practical and emotional strategies for being an effective caregiver. The MDA ALS Caregiver’s Guide is meant to give guidance, assistance and advice in many aspects of caring for a person you love who has ALS.

It’s full of references to other websites, publications, articles or organizations where you can go to find out more about a specific topic or product. And it’s laced with quotations from other caregivers and people with ALS, meant to show you that others have dealt with everything you’re facing, and they’ve felt the same fears, despair, exhaustion and hope that you’ll be experiencing in this part of your life. You’ll read many comments from people about the happiness and satisfaction they’ve found while living with ALS.

Resourceful caregivers have come up with ingenious solutions to their challenges. Not every suggestion works for every caregiver; sometimes you’ll find a better idea than those mentioned here. Because caregiving is an ongoing, organic, creative process that’s a little bit different for everyone engaged in it, this book can’t include every possible idea. But we hope it provides a platform from which you can think creatively as well as information to get you started and many places in which to look for more solutions.

The primary family caregiver is the care coordinator for the loved one with ALS, the manager of the loved one's medical, social, financial and cultural life. The issue you'll face as primary caregiver will challenge you and your family in ways you've probably never before encountered. You'll make many personal decisions that will affect all of those close to you and your loved one. Along the way, you’ll interact with health care professionals, agencies, insurance companies and many other entities.

A good way to start your journey might be to hold a family meeting (including the person with ALS) and discuss who can cover which caregiving tasks, and how care for your loved one with ALS will be coordinated. One person — usually the spouse, but sometimes a parent or an adult child, sibling or other loved one — becomes the primary caregiver. Other caregivers should treat this person as the leader, the one who coordinates and keeps track of the loved one’s many needs.

Those needs will change, sometimes rapidly, so more tasks will need to be assigned and your list of caregivers and helpers will grow. From the beginning, think of caregiving as a group endeavor, not something to be done by a single person — otherwise, burnout and collapse are more likely.

No doubt you’ve heard it said you must “care for the caregiver.” This isn’t an empty phrase. You must find a balance that allows you to give quality care to your loved one and still maintain your emotional and physical strength. This means that in the course of your journey, you’ll need to find other people to help.

This guide offers strategies for maintaining your strength and finding help.

It frequently refers to MDA’s Everyday Life with ALS: A Practical Guide. Everyone with ALS who’s registered with MDA is entitled to a free copy of Everyday Life from their local MDA office. These two books are meant to be used together. Everyday Life focuses on practical strategies and equipment, and is written for the person with ALS, though of course its information is invaluable for caregivers as well. Everyday Life covers: equipment for daily living, saving energy, home modification, equipment for mobility, speech and respiratory issues, transfers and exercise.

In the MDA ALS Caregiver’s Guide, the approach is a little different. This book is geared to what caregivers need to know, including how to know when some aspect of your loved one’s condition has reached a crisis stage, and provides answers to what caregivers can do at various points for their loved ones with ALS.

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