If you haven’t seen the top of your dining room table for a while because of caregiving paperwork, you’re in good company.
I recently shared my own messy pile of health care papers (from just one month into breast cancer diagnosis/treatment) on Instagram, and the “Yep, looks familiar!” responses are still rolling in.
In addition to my own stacks of pre-authorizations, discharge instructions, diagnostic reports, treatment plans, bills, scripts, and more, I’m also constantly fighting the slog of paperwork that accompanies caring for a child with special needs: Individualized Education Plans, or IEPs (which are 40+ pages each and I have several copies for every year she’s had a new or revised one), hospital admissions/after visit summaries, benefits statements, Medical Assistance renewal applications, and more. Even with so many things being online and digital, the amount of paper generated around all types of caregiving situations is unreal.
Full disclosure: sharing these tips doesn’t mean all the caregiving paperwork in my house is completely organized and efficiently filed. By no means. The dining room table piles just get moved around. Currently, my “pile collection” area is my home office floor. Last week, the pile collection was in the living room, next to my recliner. Basically, if you’re a caregiver (and/or in need of care, as I currently am), the paperwork finds you. Follows you. Grows exponentially, always. That said, here’s my first tip:
Shift your mindset.
As I often tell my daughter when it’s time to clean her room (which happens a lot, as she’s a dump-everything-out-to-find-one-Barbie-shoe kind of girl), cleaning is sorting. The same is true with your paperwork. So start with that mindset shift. Instead of looking at the piles and thinking, “I’ll never get to the bottom of this,” or “This will take forever,” or “I can’t do this right now,” think of it as a sorting exercise—one bill at a time, one script at a time, one receipt at a time.
Remember, what you need to focus on first is SORTING, not filing. I’m a highly organized person, but since becoming a caregiver, my filing systems have been primarily…non-existent. I’ve had to learn to let that go, to be OK with having messy and overflowing boxes of paperwork. Because when you’re moving from crisis to crisis, or living through hard things as a caregiver, the priority isn’t filing. The priority is to have the important documents accessible, and the rest can wait.
In many cases, I now find that the every growing piles of paperwork fall into two categories, 85% of which are “things to file/save” and 15% of which require action on my part (sign, scan, send, pay). That was a groundbreaking thought for me: realizing that the 85% of stuff could go in a box to be filed later!
Set up a sorting station.
If the dining room table works for you, that’s fine! Don’t get bogged down in the “where.” In fact, wherever the paperwork is currently collecting is probably the best spot for your sorting station.
Pick an area where you spend a lot of time. For example, the living room floor often works for me because at night, I can watch a TV show while sorting. I spread out all the paperwork that’s accumulated during the week and sort it into piles that make sense to me: bills to pay, bills to file, records to save, tax documents, action items, etc.
Then, grab some boxes. Any box will do as long as the paperwork fits into it. Old empty shoeboxes, moving boxes, plastic crates — whatever you have around. No need to go buy new at this point: the goal of this tip is to help you manage the mess in the moment, and prepare the paperwork for filing later. Grab a Sharpie and mark the boxes with the categories you created.
When something new comes in, put it in the appropriate box. If you can’t do that immediately, don’t stress, but try to find an evening or an afternoon to sort your newest “piles” that have built up during the week. Once you have the boxes system down, you can find some comfort in knowing there’s a place for the things in the pile—whenever you can get to them.
Once the paperwork has been sorted into their appropriate boxes, move them away from the high-traffic area they’re currently in. Because if you’re like me, every time you go by that spot, you’re probably feeling overwhelmed and defeated just by looking at it. And as caregivers, we’re already carrying enough. We don’t need those extra feelings of guilt, shame, or overwhelm!
Safeguard priority items and store them close by.
Make sure one of the boxes is devoted to “action items,” or things that need your attention (things to sign, things to return, etc.). These documents should probably stay in a high-traffic area, and might be better suited to a letter tray on your desktop or kitchen counter—wherever you’ll see it often.
For the items you need to bring along to appointments/have handy at all times, check out the GOKit from Ways & Wane. Designed by two sisters after caring for their dad, this portable medical planner keeps everything you need organized and on-hand so you can focus on your caree’s emotional and physical needs—instead of paperwork. Have to head to the ER? Grab the GOKit, or your own way of transporting the important “go-to” documents you’ve sorted out. Sorting through the piles of paperwork for Dad’s power of attorney or Grandmom’s medical records is the last thing you want to do in a crisis moment like that!
We can’t avoid the paperwork that’s associated with caregiving, but we can take steps to manage it so it doesn’t take over our life—maybe just our dining room table.