Real-Life Perspectives

Getting Over Caregiver Guilt

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Even the most devoted son or daughter/in-law can have mixed feelings about being a family caregiver. Start with me! As a caregiver to my father, and then my mother and mother-in-law, who both lived into their 90s, I sometimes had far-from-gung-ho feelings about my role. And, it made me feel guilty. At one point, I even remember thinking, when is this going to end so I can go back to my life? Really, I am not Daughter Dearest!

Among the slews of caregivers I’ve interviewed over the years—I’m a writer who focuses on boomers and seniors--many have also confided their ambivalence and negative thoughts.

People are reluctant to talk about these emotions for fear of seeming selfish or being perceived as an ingrate. Our parents took care of us and we should suck it up, right?

It’s not their fault that they need help, but it’s not yours, either, for feeling the way you do. If your loved one has dementia, you may essentially be caring for someone who doesn’t remember you. That is not only heartbreaking but can make you feel less engaged—and guiltier.

Long-distance caregivers are especially prone to guilt. They aren’t right there to check in. (Is there food in the refrigerator? Are there fall hazards in the house? What about being stimulated and socializing? How do I know hired help is kind and competent?)

When the care impacts your finances, your productivity or work schedule, or time with your spouse, kids, or grandkids (and don’t forget, yourself), it can cause resentment. So can sibling relationships as in, why aren’t they pitching in more?

Caregivers may cycle through a variety of feelings. These may include: frustration and anger (Dad’s not listening to the doctor or me); helplessness (there’s nothing I can do to make Mom better); grief and loss (for no longer being who they were); and mental and/or physical exhaustion (no explanation needed). Impatient? Add that to your guilty list.

When your relationship with a parent or in-law has been challenging over the years—you haven’t gotten along or feel you’ve been treated unfairly, let’s say, and now you have to care for them--it can be confusing and even more difficult to provide care.

Sometimes you just can’t do it. Maybe your parents live far away or were emotionally and physically abusive—plain toxic. Even if it’s self-protective or smart to step back and let someone else do the caring (a family member or professional), it can still feel bad.

What’s the answer, then? I’m hardly suggesting abandoning ship. Rather, acknowledge feeling guilty, understand it and realize that you’re not in this boat alone. Translation: you’re normal.

Having unsettling thoughts doesn’t diminish the positive feelings that can come from caring for a loved one. There can be many. In my case, it felt good to know that my presence and efforts made a difference and gave my parents and mother-in-law pleasure. I felt grateful that I could use my “magic powers.”

I also knew that, as stressed as I was, I was modeling good behavior for my own children. This behavior took its toll, though. For 14 straight years, my car went back and forth weekends between Massachusetts, where I live, to first my parents’ home, then later, to long-term care, in Connecticut. After visiting my mother in her senior living community, I would often drive to see my mother-in-law who lived an hour away. Admission: I often hoped that something would come up and I wouldn't have to make my rounds.

It’s a fact: guilt is a common companion to caregiving. Rather than consume you, though, try these four strategies:

1. Research local resources.

This is key, and so is anticipating a need as much as possible so you don’t have to wait for a crisis to react. There are excellent resources to connect you with organizations, programs and people with similar needs. Learn about programs that are in your area, online caregiver forums, transportation and respite services. Others have done the homework. No need to scramble or reinvent the wheel! The Family Caregiver Council, comprised of national caregiving experts, launched a website last year that addresses caregivers’ feelings and provides top sources.Perhaps an aging life care specialist, a.k.a. geriatric care manager, who can meet your mom, assess her needs, is on top of community resources and will offer recommendations, make sense. Did you know the Eldercare Locator Service government hotline can refer you to community groups and organizations? Is there aging in place technology for your parent to stay safe and socially engaged and give you piece of mind?

2. Focus on your time together.

Instead of thinking, I only have an hour to be with Dad, decide what you can do together in that time that will be meaningful to both of you. After my 91 year-old mother, a former English teacher, had a stroke and could no longer see clearly, I used to read her familiar poetry and we would say the lines together. I would dial her friends and then put her on the line so they could stay in touch. I asked her questions about her childhood and days as a young wife and mother. I tried not to pack in a lot of activities but rather have concentrated spurts of special, one-on-one time.

3. Preserve thyself!

What can you farm out to simplify your/their life (grocery or medication delivery?) that will save you physical and physic time? Taking care of you is therapeutic, not self-indulgent. You’ll have more energy (and enthusiasm) to be a better caregiver.

4. Separate your parent from the problem.

Barry Jacobs a clinical psychologist and co-author of The Emotional Survival Guide for Caregivers, once explained it to me this way: “You love the person you’re caring for, but you hate the caregiving.”

After my father, mother and mother-in-law passed away, I missed them greatly. But I also felt relieved that I could resume my life. And for that, of course, I feel guilty.

Guest plog post by Sally Abrahms

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