Getting Over Caregiver Guilt

caregiver guilt

Guilt is one of the strongest emotions we can experience. Guilt can be crippling, paralyzing, and can destroy your emotional energy. And guilt isn’t necessarily logical. Sure, it makes sense to feel guilty about something that you have done in the past that didn’t set well with your moral compass. But sometimes you might feel guilty about something that makes no sense. That’s because guilt is a complicated emotion.

For instance, simply saying “no” to something – even though you know you must say no to whatever it is – can invoke intense guilt. Worrying that you aren’t there enough for your elderly parents can spark guilt, even if you are physically present 24/7. Even taking care of yourself, such as taking a day away from your responsibilities to rest and recharge, can be a trigger. In fact, these three points – saying no, taking time for yourself, or worrying that you aren’t there enough for a loved one enough – are the most common triggers of caregiver guilt[1].

That spells bad news for the family caregiver, as you can feel intense emotions surrounding all of those triggers. The good news? There are ways to deal with guilt and find a more confident place that allows you to feel what you need to feel but then let it go.

Why We Feel Guilty

Ask any family caregiver what they feel guilty about and you’re likely to get a sarcastic laugh. What do caregivers not feel guilty about? There are many times that guilt rises up in response to some other emotion. In fact, it happens with such regularity that Being Patient, a blog for Alzheimer’s caregivers, points out that there are several types of guilt. How many of these do you feel?

·         Guilt about the progression of disease. Realistically, there is nothing at all you can do to slow or stop the progression of something like dementia. Logically, you know this. But emotionally, it’s a different story. You might feel guilt that your elderly parents are experiencing something so difficult and you don’t have a magic treatment or cure that will ease it for them.

·         Guilt about your frustrations. When caregiving is difficult, you can get frustrated with the situation – and who wouldn’t? But for some of us, that frustration then morphs into guilt when you realize that your loved one can’t help what is happening or what they are doing. You might also feel frustration or even anger toward others, such as siblings or your spouse, if you feel they aren’t stepping up enough or being patient enough.

·         Guilt about making a mistake. We’re human. We make mistakes all the time. But when those mistakes lead to some sort of injury or an uncomfortable situation for your parent, you might find it tough to write it off as a mistake made by an imperfect human. For instance, if your elderly parent falls getting out of the shower, even though you installed grab bars and otherwise did what you could to make it safe, you might feel intense feelings of guilt because you weren’t there right beside them to help them avoid the fall. A medical alert pendant with fall detection  is a great complementary tool for caregivers, incidentally.

·         Guilt about not doing enough. This can be especially true for those in the sandwich generation, who are dealing with caring for an elderly parent as well as caring for younger children. The day-to-day reality of meeting the needs of several family members can become overwhelming, and that can lead to you feeling stretched far too thin, which can then lead to feeling guilty about not “being enough” for everyone.

·         Guilt about taking care of yourself. Taking time for yourself is essential. You can’t effectively help your elderly parent if you are burned out. But even if you take advantage of respite care and have a professional caregiver right there with your loved one for a day while you use that time to take a nap or otherwise de-stress, you may struggle with intense feelings of guilt[2].

Alleviating the Feelings of Guilt

Even talking about guilt can make you feel guilty. Reaching out to someone to simply say that you feel something negative in response to your family caregiving duties – such as guilt, anger, frustration, sadness, or grief – can trigger even more of that particular emotion. That’s why it’s so important to really think about your mental health and reach out for help regardless of the guilt you’re feeling. If you let the emotions keep you silent, you run the risk of internalizing them even more than you already have, and that can lead to depression and anxiety[3].

Let’s talk about some ways to keep from doing that.

Identify What You are Feeling

According to the New York Times, putting a name to an emotion you are feeling helps take away the power it has over you. It helps lessen the burden of that emotion. To that end, it’s important to remember that guilt can be combination of emotions. Guilt might be fueled by anxiety, shame, frustration, resentment, embarrassment, and much more[4].

Simply saying out loud, “I’m resentful because my parent got sick and it has changed my life so much” can be tough. But once you get it out, you will feel much better, and those negative emotions can begin to lift.

Let Go of Toxic Positivity

Do you sometimes feel as though you must be positive and cheery all the time? That you must find the “silver linings” and put the best possible spin on every situation? Toxic positivity is “the belief that no matter how dire or difficult a situation is, people should maintain a positive mindset.” And while it’s important to think in a positive way, it can be emotionally harmful to see every situation as an opportunity.

The truth is this: sometimes life is just awful. Sometimes it gets hard. Sometimes, you try so hard to stay positive that all the negative emotions get pushed down until you are filled with them, and the cheery façade is entirely fake. Suddenly, staying on the sunny side of life has become toxic for you.

Let that go by being real and honest. It can be hard to admit that you’re feeling down and depressed. It can be tough to tell someone you’re feeling intense anxiety. It can be difficult to ask for help because you’re so overwhelmed you can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel. But it’s vitally important to be honest when things aren’t going well, for your own mental health.

Take Time for Yourself

Yes, it might make you feel guilty at first, but the more time you spend taking care of yourself, the more you will realize that you come back to your loved one’s side with more energy and patience. If you get the chance to do things you enjoy during the day, take advantage of it by writing in a journal, doing some light exercise, calling a friend to catch up, or simply zoning out in front of the television for a bit.

If you have the time to get out, fresh air and sunlight can work wonders. Spend time with a friend or go for a long walk (or do both at the same time). If you’re worried about your parent being on their own for a few hours, invest in an emergency response solution for them and keep your phone handy at all times.

What if you don’t have the time to get out? What if your loved one needs such constant care that you are unable to leave the house? That’s when it’s time to call in respite care to help you. There’s no shame in not being able to do everything by yourself.

Forgive Yourself

When you don’t make it to your son’s soccer game because you had to take your mother to the doctor, or you miss out on your spouse’s big celebration at work because your father wound up hospitalized and you needed to be there, you can feel intense guilt because you aren’t “doing enough.” Being stretched thin across people who need you is something that the 54% of those in the sandwich generation deal with on a daily basis. Rather than demand that you meet every expectation, give yourself some grace. You’re one person, and you can only do so much.

But what happens when the guilt goes far beyond missing that soccer game?

Let’s say you promised your elderly parent that they would never have to go into a nursing home. But then they have a series of strokes, other medical conditions get worse, and suddenly you find yourself in a situation where you can literally no longer care for them – they need the kind of skilled nursing care you simply cannot provide, and you can’t afford to hire a full-time staff that would allow them to stay home.

Having to make this difficult decision, and potentially breaking a promise you made to someone you love, can feel devastating. But it’s important to give yourself grace and forgiveness. Sometimes, things simply go beyond what you can control or handle. And even though that doesn’t feel okay, it is okay – because there’s no other choice. Work on forgiving yourself for these things that hurt so much, even if that means going to a counselor or support group and getting help.

Reach Out for Help

As a family caregiver, you are doing a noble and wonderful thing. But that doesn’t mean that it’s easy! Having strong, supportive people around you can make an enormous difference. If you don’t have someone in your life to help you cope, turn to support groups, which are filled with people in the same boat as you. These are the people who understand what you’re going through and can give you a listening ear or even some sage advice on how to handle things. AARP offers great ways to find the right caregiver support group.

Don’t hesitate to reach out for practical, everyday help as well. If it gets to a point where you can’t handle the physical burdens of caring for your elderly parent, look into a home health aide or professional caregiver to come in and help you from time to time.

If your elderly parent is still getting around on their own but you worry about their declining sense of balance, consider a medical alert system with fall detection. Opt for aging in place home modifications, such as non-skid flooring and grab bars. Do what you can but also recognize that you can’t do everything.

Get Past the Guilt for a Healthier You

Dealing with guilt and other emotions surrounding caregiving can be tough. But by following these tips, you can lessen the burden on yourself and bring a much happier, healthier you to the table. That in turn can help your loved one too. Alert1 wishes you abundant emotional and mental peace and security.