Overcoming Caregiver Guilt When Caring for an Aging Loved One
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When you are a caregiver for an aging parent, responsible for his or her well-being, it is easy to feel you aren’t doing enough. Anyone in this position who is even moderately compassionate, caring and conscientious may sometimes feel guilty about what they are or aren’t doing.

What is Caregiver Guilt

Being guilty is defined as having done something “wrong.” When we are caregivers, we often feel we have done something wrong.

Maybe we feel we don’t spend enough time with our aging loved one. We don’t call or visit often enough. We haven’t made the person we’re caring for happy.

The list could go on and on. We never feel we’re doing enough or doing the right thing. In fact, we probably haven’t done anything “wrong” per se. But we impose guilt on ourselves. Feeling guilty is an epidemic in the caregiving world.

Causes of Caregiver Guilt

A lot of guilt is self-imposed, but just as often it’s dished out by others. When you’re dealing with a loved one with a serious physical or mental disability, sometimes they will inflict great guilt on their caregivers, even family members they love.

We need to remember they are not well. They may be angry about their condition. They may be lonely and depressed. They are sometimes going to take out their frustration on their caregivers.

No matter how well-intentioned a caregiver may be, no matter how confident we are that we’re doing all we can under the circumstances, guilt is part of a caregiver’s experience. Here are some classic causes of caregiver guilt:

  1. Everyone in your family is relying on you to be the caregiver. You can never do enough or please everyone…including the loved one for whom you are caring.
  2. You’re upset you didn’t recognize symptoms sooner. Maybe they wouldn’t have suffered the stroke if you’d been paying more attention. Maybe they wouldn’t have fallen if you’d paid more attention.
  3. You are stressed by the constraints of caregiving and “lose it”. You are mean and angry, not as compassionate or caring as you could or should be.
  4. You can’t take time to do something special for yourself. Whether it’s a weekend away, or just an afternoon in the park, you can barely enjoy the break.
  5. Taking care of a loved one has become a dreaded obligation. You are embarrassed, maybe even disgusted by their behavior.
  6. You’ve had to put your dad in an assisted living or nursing home. Even though you promised him it would never happen.

All of these real-life scenarios can trigger exceptional feelings of guilt that can linger and broil below the surface sub-consciously.

These are, however, all totally normal feelings of guilt. You need to accept and acknowledge the feelings. Don’t be too hard on yourself. You are dealing with a difficult situation and are doing the best you can. No one is perfect.

One way to mitigate and manage these guilty feelings is to set realistic expectations. Consider the following:

  • Try not to compare yourself to other caregivers in your family or caregiving universe. Set expectations for yourself that aren’t based on others.
  • Don’t expect too much of yourself or be too hard on yourself. Recognize that we all have shortcomings and foibles; we do our best.
  • Set achievable, realistic goals and caregiving plans so you can manage expectations.

Symptoms of Caregiver Guilt

Guilty feelings about your shortcomings as a caregiver can manifest themselves in many harmful ways. These include:

  1. Basic burnout. You feel you can’t go on. Caregiver burnout often leaves you fed up and at the end of your rope.
  2. Physical and mental exhaustion. You are fatigued, weary, not thinking clearly and simply not at the top of your game.
  3. Insomnia and over indulgence. You can’t sleep, you’re drinking too much or taking pharmaceuticals to escape reality.
  4. Other parts of your life are falling apart. You aren’t paying attention to your job, family or other responsibilities. You don’t have energy or interest for anything.
  5. Frustration. You are constantly frustrated and nothing seems to ever go right.
  6. Anger and stress. You’re lashing out and snapping more. Caregiver stress can leave you angry about life in general.
  7. Depression and lethargy. You can’t motivate yourself to get out of bed or get dressed or go anywhere.

Caregiver guilt can be very damaging. It can have a severe impact on you physically, mentally and emotionally. Not only does it take a toll on the caregiver, but it prevents the caregiver from giving the sort of care required. If you don’t take care of yourself, you can’t take care of anyone else.

8 Ways to Help Let Go of Caregiver Guilt

Before a lot of guilt takes its toll on you, try to let go of it and manage it.

  1. Find a caregiver support group. Talk to others, share experiences, learn that you aren’t alone or wrong in your feelings. This can help you learn to manage negative feelings and feel connected to those who are also on a caregiver journey.
  2. Tap into additional resources. There are many services, both public and private, that can help alleviate the caregiver burden by providing in-home assistance and companion support.
  3. Set realistic expectations. Balance the demands of family, work and caregiving, recognizing you can’t do everything. Don’t let perfectionism cause extra stress. Make lists and daily plans that help you stay on schedule.
  4. Take care of yourself. Diet, nutrition, exercise, and fresh air all make for a healthy body and mind.
  5. Make time for yourself. It’s called recovery and revive time. Give yourself pleasant little gifts. It could be reading a book, going to a movie, getting a manicure, taking a walk on the beach. Favorite past-times provide a break as well as a pleasant distraction.
  6. Learn to accept. Accept that you may not be able to make your mom happy when you go to visit. Accept that she may be angry with you. Accept that she isn’t the person she once was. Make the best of it all. It is a part of the new journey. Take what joy and solace you can get while you can.
  7. Be patient. Be patient with yourself and with the one for whom you are caring. Very often “they know not what they do,” as we say. Reap the benefits of mindfulness and take deep breaths. Try not to let it get you down.
  8. Maintain a sense of humor. I find that humor can inject a huge dose of levity. Learn to laugh a little at even the most ludicrous, sometimes sad situations. So much is out of our control we need to roll with the punches.

Finding balance between your best interests as a caregiver and what is in the best interest of the one you are caring for can be challenging. Caregiver guilt is inevitable but with mindfulness and intent, you can learn to let go of some of it.

About the Author(s)

An accomplished freelance writer and editor, Cheryl is passionate on how to bolster our resilience in old age and reshape the course of decline. Her compassion and understanding for caregiving stems from acting as a caregiver for her mother, who struggled with dementia, and her father, who suffered from Parkinson’s.

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