Caring Currents

Stress-Cutting Tip #1: The Checklist

Last updated: Feb 21, 2010


Thanks to a friend and fellow family caregiver, I just discovered a fascinating book, The Checklist Manifesto, by surgeon Atul Gawande. My friend is a nurse, and people who work in medicine are talking about this book because Gawande, who practices at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, teaches medicine at Harvard, and writes for The New Yorker, is making such surprising discoveries that they're changing the way medicine is practiced.

Yes, Gawande's a pretty smart guy, and The Checklist Manifesto is a very smart book that explains how a fairly simple organizing tool, the checklist, can be the key to doing just about anything more successfully.

More important, though, this fairly short book lays out in very clear terms how following a checklist can simplify the most complicated tasks, preventing mistakes, and - well, basically preventing you from dropping the ball or losing your marbles. That, of course, makes a checklist the perfect tool when you're caring for an aging or ill family member, which is one of the most complex jobs there is.

The book starts out with a series of fascinating and gripping stories of medical cases that went wrong, and why. And the reason always turns out to be a simple oversight or mistake that could have been prevented if doctors hadn't neglected to take a simple step or ask a simple question.

Gawande concludes that using checklists is the secret to preventing medication mistakes and other medical errors; in fact last week The HealthCare Blog wrote about how Gawande has used his checklist insights to develop a "safe surgery" system the World Health Organization plans to use around the world. And sure enough, he goes on to show how using a checklist can help us do just about anything better, faster, more efficiently -- and with a great deal less stress.

This is a lesson that takes very seriously, which is why we've made so many checklists for caregivers, and are adding new ones all the time.

For example, one of the most popular features on the site is a checklist you can follow to determine if a loved one is safe to live independently. We have a to-do list for Alzheimer's, a to-do list for cancer and checklists you can use when a loved one has been diagnosed with a number of other conditions.

We also have checklists that can help enormously when [coping with a family member's death] ( or with planning a funeral or memorial service.

What I've found from my personal experience is that having a checklist to follow keeps me from feeling anxious and overwhelmed. It quiets that little voice in my head that's constantly fretting and poking at me, whirring a constant refrain of "I better not forget to do X" and "Uh oh, I forgot to do Y."

Keep a pen handy, add to your checklist when something new occurs to you, and you may find it turns caring for your loved one into a series of less overwhelming and more manageable steps. Or at least somewhat more manageable. And given the high level of stress that most of us caring for family members function under, any tool that cuts stress belongs in the toolbox.