Caregiving When You Experience Sensory Sensitivities or Sensory Overload

Being a caregiver for another person, be they a child or an adult, can add anxiety and stress. Caregiving responsibilities require a significant amount of organization and planning, along with additional emotional resilience and physical energy. Ultimately, any caregiver can experience difficulties coping. Additionally, if you have sensory sensitivities, these feelings and managing the caregiving role can feel magnified. You may find it nearly impossible to start new tasks and stay organized. Moreover, you might simply feel depleted. Caregiving when you have sensory sensitivities or sensory overload needs more help.

There are straightforward ways to make caregiving more efficient and less stressful. Shelley Ann Morris, a caregiver with a learning disability, attention deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD) and low vision shares her lived experience to help other caregivers. Below are easy and simple techniques, informed by Shelley Ann’s experiences to help make the caregiver role more manageable when you experience sensory sensitivity or sensory overload.

Having ADHD is one thing, taking on the role of caregiver is another—these combined can lead to all sorts of challenges. We want to do our best for those who may need our support. Recognizing our own unique strengths and difficulties, and using the many tips, tricks, strategies and resources can help.

Shelley Ann Morris, caregiver
Infographic highlighting 10 ways to manage caregiving with sensory sensitivities.

Take notes throughout appointments

Being the primary caregiver of a loved one requires significant organization. Often, caregivers accompany their loved ones to multiple appointments, including seeing doctors, specialists, nurses, occupational therapists, physiotherapists, etc. Attending these various appointments and speaking to other professionals can quickly become overwhelming. It is so easy to have information and instructions from different people mixed up in your head. Especially if you already experience difficulties remembering details and keeping track of new information. Or if you find health care environments to be sensory-rich and even more overwhelming.

“Accompanying a loved one to an appointment can be stressful. There is so much information, often being given in a short space of time. I struggle with paying attention and writing notes at the same time.”

Shelley Ann Morris

Note taking options

Consider taking notes during appointments. Alternatively, schedule time immediately afterwards to record important information. Whether it be an in-person, virtual or telephone appointment, jotting down essential information is a simple and effective tactic for memory recall. Ultimately, this will help you keep track of the new and important information. Additionally, it will allow you to refer to the information in future. You might find writing most helpful. On the other hand, you might prefer to record a voice memo. Alternatively, you might send yourself an email or text with critical info. Find a way to take notes that works for you.

Record appointments or phone calls

Another effective way to help stay organized as a caregiver if you have greater sensitivities is recording important doctor visits or phone calls. If you have low vision or prefer to use auditory cues for memory, this is a great alternative strategy to help you stay organized. Additionally, almost all smartphone devices have voice recording capabilities making it simple and easy.

Make sure you get the consent of the people in the room to record. Some people may find it a bit uncomfortable if you start recording a conversation without consulting with them beforehand. Therefore, explain why you would like to record the appointment. This will ensure that everyone in the discussion has consented to be recorded to avoid any confusion or discomfort. There are also voice to text apps and software that can help you transcribe the information.

“I make extensive use of the recording apps on my phone. Some, including your loved one, might be uneasy about having the conversation recorded. I am very fortunate to have non-ADDers in my family who are excellent at taking in and remembering what was said at meetings. ALWAYS remember to obtain information from all involved BEFORE you turn on your recording app.”

Shelley Ann Morris, caregiver

Ask for healthcare information to be printed

Another strategy that you can utilize as a caregiver is asking for important healthcare information and future recommendations to be printed. Navigating the healthcare system be a very confusing process. Therefore, having printed information and pictures can sometimes make this a bit less of a complicated process.

Furthermore, for some people who are more visual learners, this is an effective technique to help review material throughout the appointment and at home. Additionally, it will help reduce some of the stress of remembering and jotting down all the information given.

Sorting through email or finding information on a website after an appointment might feel overwhelming. Ask your healthcare professional for information in a way that works for you. If printed materials are your strength, get them to record a short video or audio recording with the information to summarize your appointment. That leads to the next tip!

State your preferred way of communication

Caregiver with greater sensory sensitivities should always consider your preferred way of communicating. For example, you may be a visual learner or an auditory learner. Regardless of your sensory preferences,  let your loved one’s care team know what helps you best.

For example, Morris explained that she prefers to communicate via phone calls. Even though calls can be an extremely frustrating and time-consuming way of connecting. Therefore, she suggests being flexible. Shift your expectations to include waiting.

Another communication barrier that Morris experiences is asking people to repeat information. Morris has difficulty with her memory. She also struggles to understand complex information due to issues with her working memory. To help, she simply asks for information to be repeated or paraphrased. Then she can confirm she has understood.

“We have come a long, long way with acknowledging the challenges that we can see, but we have more work to do when understanding peoples’ hidden struggles. I have to remind myself that the different ways that I receive and process information is by no means a reflection of my intellectual abilities.”

Shelley Ann Morris, caregiver

Use a calendar or an agenda

Another simple and easy solution to help you manage all the responsibilities is using a calendar or agenda. As a caregiver, you will likely have to remember many upcoming appointments and events you may have to attend. This can quickly start to feel confusing and overwhelming. Therefore, to help stay organized, invest in a calendar or agenda to keep track of all upcoming visits. Morris suggests using other prompts and organizational techniques including colour-coding paper calendars and using reminders/alarms on her phone.

Additionally, Morris states that it is helpful to add “buffers” into your schedule. She indicates that it is very easy to underestimate the amount of time it might take to complete a task. Morris discussed that the COVID-19 constrictions in many hospital settings can often contribute to this issue. Often there are questionnaires to complete, longer queues and having to change your mask which all adds up to a longer appointment. Therefore, she assumes that everything will take longer than she anticipates to avoid running late on your to-do list.

Young caregiver hugging elderly.

Prepare for appointments in advance

Morris suggests that another effective method to help manage to keep track of different appointments is being prepared with questions in advance. This will ensure that you remember and address all important information you might need to know for future care. Preparing questions in advance is an effective strategy especially if you have difficulty keeping track of information. Additionally, Morris recommends asking the person you are caring for whether they have any questions they would like to jot down as well to help make sure all information is addressed.

Learn to be flexible

A common experience as a caregiver is having sudden and unpredictable changes in schedules or procedures. Morris notes that having flexibility can be very difficult for someone with ADD. It is not uncommon to experience a “healthcare hiccup” in the process of caring for a loved one. Although these incidents are often unintentional, they can result in significant distress. Therefore, she suggests it is important to modify your expectations to be more flexible. By anticipating these changes, you are likely to prevent future frustration.

“We are always being told to ‘go with the flow but sometimes my ADD makes ‘adulting’ very difficult when there has been a sudden change in schedule. I’ve learned to expect that this will happen, which helps me to cope.”

Shelley Ann Morris

Focus on prioritizing a few tasks at first and gradually increase

Becoming a caregiver can be an extremely exhausting and stressful role. Often, it involves taking on multiple different responsibilities and tasks within a short period. If you feel overwhelmed managing this new role, consider prioritizing a few caregiving tasks at first. For example, maybe your first focus is being the person to take them to doctor visits or managing some household duties. This will help you grow more comfortable and confident within your new caregiving role. Morris suggests that breaking down bigger tasks into smaller components helps her cope without becoming too overwhelmed. Ultimately, this will provide a strong foundation and slowly allow you to gradually increase the number of tasks without becoming too overwhelmed.

Make deadlines for tasks

Being a caregiver requires you to do a dependable person. To help maintain that Morris mentions is creating personal deadlines for different tasks. Whether that being making phone calls, shopping or doing errands, it might be helpful to create concrete deadlines for yourself to complete these tasks. Morris explains that this tactic has allowed her to keep track of her different activities and keep her more accountable.

Additionally, she goes on to suggest that the time of day you complete tasks matters. For example, Morris states that she does the most difficult caregiving tasks during a time when she feels her best. Therefore, consider whether the morning, afternoon or evening is when you have the most energy and focus and schedule your tasks accordingly.

Seek social and emotional support from others

It is important to recognize that you may feel that you need additional support as a caregiver. Caregiving is often an exhausting, emotional and stress-inducing role to take on. Especially if you are someone who struggles with sensory sensitivities. As necessary it is to take care of others, it is also essential to take care of yourself. Therefore, consider reaching out to other caregivers with sensory sensitivities to share your experiences and provide mutual support.

There are several different resources to choose from for caregivers with greater sensory sensitivities. For example, consider checking out Gina Pera’s advice column and community on becoming a caregiver with ADHD to read more suggestions from people’s lived experiences.

Becoming a caregiver is an emotional journey and a challenging role. Additionally, managing being a caregiver with sensory sensitivities can feel even more exhausting. Therefore, consider implementing some of these suggestions you maintain organized and calm throughout this process. Special thanks to Shelley Ann Morris for sharing her experiences and her wonderful contributions to this blog post!

Draw on your strengths to feel emotionally resiliant

While I have outlined the many stumbling blocks that caregivers with ADHD might face, let’s not forget about the upside.  ADDers are incredibly resilient, and our out-of-the-box approach to problem-solving can lead to some very creative solutions.  Some of the best tools and strategies that I have gained for tackling life’s challenges were learned from fellow ADDers themselves.  I am by no means, an expert. The suggestions that I have shared are based on my own experiences, since my diagnosis 14 years ago. I hope that what I have listed here may be of assistance to others.

Shelley Ann Morris, caregiver

Interested in learning more about managing sensory sensitivities or sensory overload as an adult? Check out:

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