There are few people on earth better equipped with the innate ability to make us feel guilty than our own mothers! In our culture, guilt has been instinctively crafted to an art form designed to influence our behavior. It is a learned behavior passed on from generation to generation. Feelings of guilt can be self-inflicted and can be imposed upon us by other people. When guilt is legitimate, it can spur us to do better. When it is unwarranted, it only causes anxiety and hinders our ability to live our lives in peace, make sound decisions and deliver quality care. This article will address this issue and how to manage caregiver guilt.
It is normal for caregivers to be pushing their personal, financial and social resources beyond reasonable and healthy limits. This seems to be common in the times we live in. For many, some needed caregiving would help them better deal with the pressures of work, home, family, finances, friends and spiritual needs. Fatigue alone can increase this performance pressure and result in reduced ability to meet everyday needs and expectations. And we have not even addressed the needs and demands of an elderly parent!
The Added Burden
A parent’s care needs will increase while they undergo the natural aging process. Not surprisingly, the amount of time and energy required of the caregiver increases exponentially. It is very normal to have feelings of resentment as demands on our time begin to radically change our daily routines. Oftentimes adult children already have their hands full! The average woman in America today will spend more time caring for her parents than for her children. She is typically 45 to 65-year-old married female with children at home, in college, or with families of their own and thus can feel herself sandwiched between two generations. As her parents’ needs for assistance increase over time, she often feels as though she simply cannot do enough for them. Many times she will become frustrated when her efforts to try to “fix” things that go wrong in her parents lives begin to create conflicts in her own life, and unfortunately the fixes never seem to last. Ultimately, she begins to feel that she is losing control of her life and realizes that things that were once routine for her and easily manageable are quickly becoming more than she can handle. Conflicting priorities can often lead to feelings of helplessness and guilt that she is not doing anything particularly well. This self-imposed guilt then becomes her constant companion. Others can also impose guilt upon us. Failures in our elder caregivng obligations to our own families can lead to criticism from those whose opinions we value most. And the caregiver providing most of the care is often criticized by those family members who do far less, but feel entitled to judge and suggest.
One is never really prepared to accept responsibilities thrust upon them by their aging parents. Few people understand the complexities of health problems, insurance coverage, senior housing, drug plans, Medicare, legal obligations and other senior-related issues. Caregivers continuously bombarded by these issues are bound to make mistakes, which will frustrate them, even further. Uninformed family members and siblings seeking to offer help, often only serve to highlight the primary caregiver’s shortcomings.
Revisit the Guilt
Remember, there is nothing out there that can’t be learned. Seek out the advice of professionals such as Geriatric Care Managers, Estate Planners, Eldercare Attorneys, local support groups, and use the local library. Becoming informed allows you to be in control.
Feelings of responsibility set us up for the probability of occasional feelings of guilt. We must be able to distinguish between legitimate guilt that motivates us to do better and harmful guilt that might be undeserved and leave us dispirited. Sometimes it might be helpful to write down the things that make you feel guilty. Examine the underlying reasons and determine if a solution is within your power. Oftentimes compartmentalizing a large problem into several smaller issues can make them seem more manageable. Constantly fretting over what seems to be an insurmountable responsibility can only lead to more anguish and more guilt. Tackling and resolving a few problems can give you a sense of accomplishment and build your confidence to handle those never-ending new surprises as they arise. Consider that the loved one being cared for may be feeling guilty because of they are imposing on the caregiver, while the caregiver feels guilty that there is little or no time to do more.1 Also, it is never helpful to anguish about the past; instead, concentrate on what can be done now and resist the temptation to allow old conflicts to create guilt today.
Often as the caregiver is pulled in conflicting directions, she may invite her aging parent to come live with her. Caring for a loved one at home may not be the best solution for either. Many people have made promises to each other about their elder care when they are young thinking the day will never come, but it always does. Often the caregiver struggles to meet the ever-increasing needs of their loved one at great personal sacrifice. Be realistic about what level of care that can safely be provided.
The loved one’s financial resources should be considered before the caregiver them self begins to weaken. Often the decision to move a loved one out of the home is delayed until a nursing home is the only option. Consider using the financial resources while there is still the opportunity to live in a more social environment. Once the funds are exhausted, the Medicaid alternative is always available in the nursing home setting. Many senior living environments can provide the additional cushion of care that may now or in the near future be required. This way, professionals can deal with the issues that may be unfamiliar to the caregiver. This will help to relieve the stress that may be building in the relationship, and help to quiet the guilt and increase the quality of the relationship.
To determine if the guilt that one is feeling is warranted, ask if everything has been done that is practical and necessary within reasonable limits. What is important is ensuring the quality of life for everyone involved, while meeting the realistic needs of the loved one. It is not the caregiver’s role to ensure everyone’s happiness, only their own. Perhaps much of the guilt comes from thinking that the caregiver has more influence than they really do. But, in the end, guilt can be rejected as much as it can be accepted!
1Rogers, L, et.al. Fourteen Friends’ Guide to Elder Caring. Broadway Books, New York, 1999: 59-70
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