How to get Organized: Record-Keeping Tips for Beating Information Overload

By Lisa M. Petsche

As caregiver to a frail senior relative, one of your challenges involves managing a wealth of information relevant to his or her health and well-being. This includes medical, financial, legal and other important details.

It’s easy to become overwhelmed by all the data there is to keep track of, such as schedules, appointments, due dates, identification numbers, names, locations and phone numbers of health care professionals, and so on. The resulting disorganization may lead to missed appointments or unnecessary expenses, among other consequences.

On the other hand, keeping information organized and centralized makes it quick and easy to access, saving you time and energy and avoiding frustration. It also facilitates communication with service providers, ensuring timely, thorough and accurate sharing of key information. In addition, a good record-keeping system helps ensure continuity of care when you take breaks from caregiving, and also in the event of a crisis should you become unable to look after your loved one.

What to organize

Following are types of information regarding your relative that it’s important to have easy access to.

Vital statistics: Date and place of birth, immigration and citizenship papers, military service records, employment history and marriage and divorce records. Keep birth certificates and other identification together in a safe place.

Medical: Height, weight, blood type, allergies, immunizations, family health history and personal health history – including tests, diagnoses, treatments and results, hospitalizations and surgeries. Keep a log of doctors and other health care professionals seen and recommendations made – for example, lifestyle changes, medication or referral to a specialist. Maintain a listing, too, of home care providers and other healthcare organizations and services involved with your relative.

This is also the place to include medication information sheets from your loved one’s pharmacy; punch holes in them or store them in top-loading page protectors if you decide to use a binder. Do the same with disease-related information in the form of brochures and other literature.

Financial: Bank accounts, safety deposit boxes, investments, assets, income, debts, credit cards, insurance policies, income tax records and funeral prearrangements. Include contact information for banks, financial planner, insurance broker and accountant. Also include household bills if your relative lives on his or her own and you are assisting with their management.

Legal: Information pertaining to power of attorney, advance directives and estate planning falls into this category. Include contact information for lawyers and any other legal professionals that have been consulted.

Personal: Contact information for relatives and friends is key here. Be sure to obtain work and cell phone numbers in case you need to reach them right away. Some other contacts to include: neighbors (especially if your loved one lives alone), faith community and clubs and groups to which your loved one belongs. This is also a good place to record your relative’s wishes regarding funeral arrangements.

Other: Anything else that doesn’t fit into the above categories, including your loved one’s daily routines and weekly schedule, and miscellaneous community resources he or she accesses (specialized transportation, for example).

It’s a good idea to create a listing of various types of emergency contacts – both family and professional – to post by the phone. Store it in a plastic sleeve or have it laminated to ensure it stays in good condition. Make a copy to keep with you. Likewise, carry a current list of your relative’s medications (name and dosage) in your wallet or purse so you’ll always have this vital information handy during medical appointments and in case of an emergency.

How to organize

One option for organizing information is a portable file box containing hanging file folders with plastic tabs and manila file folders. Another idea is a three-ring binder equipped with dividers, lined paper and transparent sheet protectors (a three-hole punch is also helpful). Label hanging folders or dividers according to major types of information – medical, financial and so on. You may wish to subdivide each of these categories, using separate sections or folders for medications, medical visits and hospitalizations in the medical category, for example.

Charts are the best way to organize information such as medication use. Most pharmacies offer medication logs, which saves you from having to create your own.

To centralize vital statistics and financial and legal information, consider utilizing one of the estate planning booklets distributed through funeral homes and financial planning firms.

The final phase after collecting and organizing information is maintaining it so that it remains up-to-date. Set aside a monthly time to review information, and make a habit of updating records immediately after medical visits and hospitalizations.

One other caregiver must-have is a large-grid wall calendar with plenty of space for noting appointments, events and other important dates, such as application deadlines and due dates for bills. These can be found at major bookstore chains.

Lisa M. Petsche is a medical social worker and a freelance writer specializing in health and elder care issues.

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