Technically No, But…
Mom and I spent the week of Christmas together. I had forgotten how much she likes to make decisions by consensus. We were preparing for our single guest, a family friend who is part of our bubble. Mom was in charge of getting appetizers ready to put out. When she asked me if I thought we should put the cheese spread and crackers out separately or pre-make them to set on a pretty platter, I thought my head would explode.
I recently heard the term “decision fatigue.” It was like a light bulb went off in my head. “Yes! I am so tired of making big decisions about mom’s health and how to stay safe that I can’t even make little decisions anymore.“
In that moment with mom, I couldn’t answer her question. Instead I said, “Mom, I can’t make one more decision. Whatever you decide is fine with me.” “Well, I think they will get mushy if we pre-make them.” I’m like, “Great, if that’s your decision, go with it.”
The definition of decision fatigue is not about being unable to make a decision, although I really like that idea. Decision fatigue refers to how the quality of our decisions deteriorate after a long session of decision making. Long session of decision making? Caregiving is nothing but a series of decisions!
Let’s put this into perspective. There is one statistic quoted over and over again in articles on decision fatigue. “The average person makes 35,000 decisions every day.” Let that settle in for a second. That is 35,000 daily decisions you make as an individual. Most of them are harmless. What should I have for breakfast? Should I bring an umbrella to work? Do you think we should lay out the crackers and cheese spread separately?
What is the real number of decisions you make every day if you are a caregiver? How much does this number increase if you have a spouse and children or are in school on top of being a caregiver? How many caregiving decisions feel harmless? It’s no wonder we are exhausted mentally, emotionally and physically.
So, how can we help our decision fatigue? The simplest way is to build habits. Habits allow us to cut down on the number of decisions we make every day. The most famous example may come from President Obama. “You’ll see I wear only gray or blue suits,” [Obama] said. “I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing, because I have too many other decisions to make.”
Clothes are one decision I don’t have to make for or with mom. Unless we are going someplace special, the daily dress code is comfy pants and a sweatshirt. The only variant is how heavy the material. Once I organized her closet to keep like weight clothes together, we had a system for dressing that generates more value for less effort and reduces friction each day.
Setting habits and routines around medication management and bill paying it is another way I cut down on decision fatigue as mom’s caregiver. Using technology to automate these routines helps as well. We set a to-do list every weekend we are together. It keeps me on track and keeps my mother from randomly telling me something that needs to be done when I am busy doing something else. That usually leads to me forgetting and then she gets frustrated. If it’s not on the weekend list and it’s not an emergency, it gets done the next weekend we are together or while I am at home
Making all these daily decisions zaps our mental energy. As the day goes on and you make decision after decision, your brain gets tired and will look for shortcuts. This is when you act impulsively without thinking things through or you don’t make a decision, which causes bigger problems. I’ve learned to never make big caregiving decisions at the end of the day.
Delegating decisions is another way to help reduce your decision fatigue. I didn’t realize it at the time, but when I let mom make the decision about the appetizer, I was delegating something that for her had high value but for me was just a stressor. As caregivers, we are not great at delegating caregiving tasks to someone else. It may feel like you are asking for help (you are) but giving someone else the freedom to make a decision for your caree means we have to stop micromanaging and that is hard.
Caregiving demands lots of small decisions and then some that are earth shattering, like moving a loved one into a community. The more you can limit your options and space out the decision-making processes, the better off you will be. When you set micro-deadlines that force you to make a decision in a timely fashion, you avoid making decisions in crisis mode.
The other thing we do as caregivers is second guess ourselves. Rethinking a decision just adds to the stress and mental exhaustion. I tell my clients all the time, “The decision you make today is the right one for today. It is the right one because is based on the information you have today. Things are always changing in caregiving and you may have to remake this decision, but that is OK.”
Knowing about decision fatigue has been helpful personally as well. I’ve been lax over the last couple of months in exercise and healthy eating. It just felt so overwhelming to figure out when and how to exercise and what to make for dinner. I’m working on simplifying my life, creating good habits and delegating what I can. When I make better decisions for myself earlier in the day, I feel less mentally exhausted and that keeps me going strong.
Disclaimer: The material in this blog is for educational purposes only. It is not intended to replace, nor does it replace, consulting with a physician, lawyer, accountant, financial planner or other qualified professional.
Deb is available as a caregiver consultant. She will answer the question: “Where do I start?” and find the resources to alleviate your stress. If you would like to invest a half hour to learn how she can help you, please contact her at: Free 30 minute consulting call