You are caring for a loved one. On top of everything else, you feel absolutely alone—as if you are doing this tough work with no help. But maybe, just maybe, you have more support than you think.
A creative tool called Atlas CareMaps is a deceptively simple but powerful way to identify all the connections in your life. It helps you see who is there to help care for, say, a frail parent. But also who is there to support you.
The tool is the brainchild of a Silicon Valley guy named Rajiv Mehta. I first came across Rajiv a few years ago when he ran a fascinating time-and-motion-like study that provided detailed data on how family caregivers actually spend their time. Now, he has created a tool that helps those caregivers understand the broader environment in which they are supporting loved ones. He calls it their caregiving ecosystem. The maps may include family members, friends, healthcare professionals, even pets.
And, yes, he built an app. But Rajiv is convinced that the most effective way to draw a map is decidedly old school. Sit down with a pencil and a piece of paper. Draw simple stick figures to represent people in your life, then draw arrows that reflect how engaged each of them is in supporting you or the person you are caring for. Thin lines, thicker lines, and broken lines all represent different levels of support. Circles show proximity, with the inner circle depicting those physically closest to you.
You can create a map on your own. But it is even better if you do it in group of caregivers with the help of a facilitator. In early tests, caregivers that met in group sessions kept in touch and supported one another long after they first drew their maps.
Even if you really love apps more than paper, Rajiv suggests you first learn the process in a facilitated group, with that paper and pencil. Then you can use the app to update the map as circumstances change.
The thing is: It really isn’t about the stick figures and the lines. It is about the process you go through to draw this picture. It forces you think and reflect about yourself and your friends and family. Who can you really rely on in a crisis? Who may not be there?
Drawing a map may remind you of your work colleague Jane, who once picked up some groceries for mom and offered to do it again. Or your mom’s neighbor George. Though you never have met him, George drives your mom to church every Sunday. Or your buddy Lawrence who never has done anything for your mom but who takes you out for a beer every couple of weeks. He’s an important support too, even if he’d never admit it (it’s a guy thing).
But drawing the map is just the first step. The next one is at least as important. You can share it with relatives and friends—an exercise that nudges you all to talk about your support system. It can help you learn more about them, and help them learn more about themselves. Without a mechanism like the map, these conversations can be very hard and often never happen at all.
Maybe, it will become a way for you to ask some family members to step up and do more. Or to remind you of how much they already do. Sometimes, the conversations sparked by the map can help create a community. In other cases, they can identify real gaps in support and encourage caregivers to seek alternatives.
CareMaps is run through the non-profit Atlas of Caregiving. It was developed by experts in tech, design, anthropology, family caregiving, and healthcare with support from the Santa Barbara Foundation and AARP.
Caregiving is hard, and can be lonely. But something as simple as drawing some stick figures on a sheet of paper may make it easier.
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