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Written by: Mary Brintnall-Peterson, Ph.D., MBP Consulting, LLC, Professor Emeritus, UW-Extension & Caregiver.

Problem-solving is a task all of us have done throughout our life but as a caregiver problem-solving seems to be different. As I care for my adult son, who has cancer, I find problem solving becomes more complicated. Complications center around who has control throughout the problem-solving process. Typically, when I make decisions I am in control of the process and make the ultimate decision. As a caregiver, I am a spectator and on the sidelines of the problem-solving process as my son is in control. Since the impact of the problem-solving decision affects him directly, he should be in control. It is just another aspect of caregiving that I need to monitor so I accept the role of spectator and honor his decisions.

Problem-Solving Process

Step 1: Identify Problems that Exit

Let’s review the steps involved in the problem-solving process. The first is to identify that a problem exists and a decision is needed.  Problem identification can involve uncomfortable feelings such as being sad, frustrated, anger, worried, anxious or other feelings.  These feelings are a signal that something isn’t right but the feelings are not the problem. I refer to these feelings as others do as, “gut feelings.” When my gut is telling me something, I stop and try to figure out what the problem is. Sometimes problems are obvious as they deal directly with a medical situation, something regarding the safety of the care receiver, family dynamics, or other problems. Once we recognize that we are uncomfortable about something, we need to figure out what it is.

Step 2: Name the Problem

Using my uncomfortable feelings, I explore the situation and define the problem. It is a chance to ask myself lots of questions—the who, what, where, and why type of questions regarding the situation. It is during this step that I find it helpful to gain the perspective of others about the problem. Throughout this step, I like to review research to see what is known about the problem. I look for common threads between sources I access with hopes of finding a solution. It is also through this process lots of potential solutions are discovered and noted.

Step 3: Find Potential Solutions

It is easy during this step to throw out solutions or make judgements about them, but try not to—you might be throwing out the best possible solution. This step isn’t decision making time. It’s time to find possible solutions, be creative and to find as many solutions as possible. With all the possible solutions in hand, you move into step four which is to make a decision and plan.

Step 4: Make a Decision & Plan

As you evaluate all the possible solutions and determine which ones are definitely not acceptable and those that might work. You create a pro and con list for the ones that might work. This is the time to think about how each possible solution might work? What might happen if a solution is selected? Will the solution be difficult to implement? What feelings arise when thinking about each solution?  Through this process one solution should emerge. If not, then continue to examine the possible solutions and do more work on the pro and con list. It might also be a time to involve others in the process to see what their pros and cons might be. Another thought to keep in mind is you can change your mind and try another solution. That leads us to step six which is to try the selected solution and see how it works.

Step 6: Select a Solution

Creating a plan to implement the selected solution can be helpful as it lays out what needs to be done by whom and when. The plan can also list resources and their contact information that could assist. Another important piece of step six is to evaluate the selected solution. Did the solution work? Were their problems? Did you alter the plan to make the solution more successful? Do you need to go back and re-do some of the problem-solving steps? You may have additional information that could be helpful or the situation may have changed. Don’t be discouraged if the selected solution didn’t work, just try the process again.

Problem-Solving Process is a Dynamic Process

It may seem that the problem-solving process takes forever but the reality is that we often do the entire process in minutes. For those who have a tendency to make decisions quickly using this process could slow them down and give them more information so they may make a wiser and more informed decision. For those who have problems making decisions the problem-solving process will ensure that they have been diligent in determining a decision. It will also aid them in focusing on making a decision and they won’t get bogged down in the process.

The reality is the problem-solving process is a dynamic process, especially in caregiving situations. Things change continually which could mean the decision made yesterday or even an hour ago isn’t working and another decision is needed.  There is also the fact that caregivers and care receivers might approach the problem-solving process differently but having the steps could provide a framework for communication and the creation of a team process. But even as a team member in the problem-solving process, as a caregiver I will still need to realize it is my son’s decision and not mine.


Exploring Problem-Solving Skills for Caregivers: How to Feel Better and Get Things Done. (n.d.). Retrieved June 25, 2020, from VA Caregiver Support.

Health In Aging. (n.d.). Caregiver Guide: Caregiving Understanding The Problem. Retrieved June 25, 2020, from Trusted Information. Better Care.

Problem Solving. (n.d.). Retrieved June 25, 2020, from Caregiver 4 Caregivers.