Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Caregiver Guilt

Paula Spencer, senior editor at Caring.com wrote a great article on caregiver guilt titled “Aging and Caring: The secret guilt of caregivers” which I highly recommend both to caregivers and to professionals trying to better understand the challenges of family caregivers.

Paula points out that caregiver guilt closely mirrors what she calls “mom guilt.”

She’s so right, in my experience. Talking with families about leaving mom or dad off at their new retirement community or assisted living home, many report feeling like “leaving my kid at kindergarten or preschool the first day of school.” It’s a feeling of anxious uncertainty, wondering if you’ve made the right decision; if he/she will be OK; if the people in charge will do the right thing.

I believe strongly that becoming a family caregiver doesn’t mean we’re now parenting our parents; rather, we’re experiencing yet another role shift in our relationship as we have at various times throughout life. Still, the feelings of parenting seems pretty close to some of the guilt-feelings of caregiving. When your child (mom) is ill, should you just watch and see, or rush to the doctor? It always seems that whichever choice you make will inevitably be the wrong one…and more guilt rushes in.

Paula shares some great “rules of thumb” about handing guilt:

  • You can’t ignore this pesky emotion, can’t will it away. Guilt simply is. So straight off, don’t think there’s anything bad or wrong about your feeling it.

  • There’s good guilt and bad guilt. Good guilt is the kind that causes us to examine our behavior and make a change, if necessary. If you feel guilty because, say, you were impatient with a parent with dementia, it’s like a little poke reminding you to try a little harder next time because hey, patience really is a virtue. Unfortunately what eats most of us alive is bad guilt. Bad guilt has no constructive underbelly. Bad guilt makes you feel guilty about a situation that you can’t help (your parent has to move into rehab, for example) or that is actually a positive for you (you’re hiring home care because you can’t do it all yourself)

  • Beware the oughts-shoulda-couldas. For caregivers, this refrain can sound like: “I ought to be able to handle this; I’m her daughter.” Or, “I shouldn’t feel so happy about going someplace without Dad.” Or, “I could have handled that better.” Things (and feelings) are what they are; stewing or denying wastes precious energy.

  • Guilt creeps in when we discount ourselves. Ironically, selfless people tend to feel proportionately more guilt. Because they work so hard aspiring to an ideal way of doing things for others, they tend to ignore the inconvenient reality that they have to look after themselves all the more. They may even forget that they, too, deserve extras and shortcuts. Or, when they finally get around to (by choice or force) having a Calgon bath or lunching out with friends, it feels as alien as it does great. That’s a sign you probably need to follow your self care with more self care.

  • Guilt loves high standards. News flash: Nobody’s perfect. No caregiver anticipates every fall or bedsore. Tempers boil. Germs sneak in. Bills slip through unpaid. Life happens, in other words, no matter how much you love the person or how much you feel you “owe” him or her. Aim to be a “B” caregiver instead of an A+ caregiver, and everybody’s going to be happier.

  • No mom is an island. No caregiver, either. I think it’s no coincidence that most of the “happy guilt” that creeps into a caregiver’s mind follows having the load lightened by getting help. It’s such a persistent canard that it’s somehow a sign of weakness to ask for or find assistance, and from as many sources of help as you can locate or who will offer it.

When my kids were little I learned that, as a working mom with three little girls, guilt would be a part of my life. Somehow, just accepting that seems to make it a little less powerful, and maybe lets us get on with life and do what we need to do, in our very own personal style.

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