Guilt and the Family Caregiver
by Sharon K. Brothers, MSW
CEO, Institute for Professional Care Education
When my kids were little, they’d get sick and I’d start stressing. Should I take them to the doctor? Should I let the bug run its course?
Either option seemed to generate a bucket full of guilt. If I called in to the advice nurse the advice was — without fail — bring them in. I’d get to the doctor, and hear what sounded to my ears something like, “Don’t worry so much. All kids get bugs from time to time. Don’t be such an anxious mom.” The doctor would give me the “lots-of-rest-and-plenty-of-fluids” advice, and I’d be home thinking about the time I’d wasted and the expense of taking a kid to the doctor — again — who didn’t really need to go. So the next time a kid got sick I’d say, “We’re going to just let this bug run its course. We’ll get plenty of rest and lots of fluids. I’m sure in a day or two she’ll be fine.” A day or two later, the bug is no better so I finally take the child to the doctor. This time I hear, “Why on earth did you wait so long to bring the child in? She could have died!” No matter which choice I made, I felt profound anxiety and guilt. Caring for our aged parents seems to be much of the same: equal parts anxiety and guilt, no matter what we do. It’s easy to let guilt guide our decision-making. It’s easy — but not wise. Just like my parenting guilt could have led me to take the kids to the doctor with each sniffle and sneeze, I learned to accept that either decision would most likely result in guilt. And then I made the decision that seemed, based on the facts as I knew them, to be the most appropriate. With our aging parents we need to make decisions based on facts, too. We need to set feelings of guilt aside and ask ourselves — and our loved ones — what best meets their needs. When my mom needed 4 people to help her to the bathroom, I had no option. I felt guilty about moving her into a nursing home, but I would have felt guiltier — and been a less responsible daughter — if I would have brought her to my home and then left her with no one to help while I attended to my own work and family needs. While we’re not parenting our parents, we are making choices and decisions, often without their input, on matters that affect nearly every aspect of their lives. Try these questions to help you check whether you’re making decisions based on fact — or on emotions like guilt: Who can help? If you parent moves into a care community, someone will always be available to help. Often, more than one person will be available. Usually someone will be awake and ready to help even during the night. In a good care community, those helpers are trained and supervised by experienced caregivers. If you choose to leave your parent at home — yours or theirs — can they get the same level of attention and care? Can you bring in home care workers to support your loved one when you’re not available? What’s my role? Often I hear from family caregivers that are exhausted from night time demands, or from caring for their own family, doing their own work, and then trying to do the tasks their loved one needs. Sit down and chat? Go through an old family photo album together? Who has time for that?! If your caregiving tasks demand all the energy you have available, who can provide the companionship and company to your loved one? Consider hiring professional caregivers — at home or in a care setting that fits for your loved one – to free you up to just enjoy a little time together. Is there joy? I’m a profound believer in finding joy in caregiving. Yes, a lot of the care we provide to loved ones — whether 2 or 102 — is not a lot of fun, but is necessary. At the same time, we find ways when we’re bathing the baby to laugh, make bubbles and sing together. What about when we’re caring for an elderly loved one? Is there joy being shared? Laughter? Find a way to discover the joy in the relationship, or get help with the tasks so you can find new ways to a joyful relationship. Caregiving, like parenting, will naturally have moments of guilt, anxiety and despair. But if we’re caring because we’re family, caregiving can also be filled with deep satisfaction and joy.