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Managing Caregiving and Guilt

Sally Abrahms
By Sally AbrahmsMarch 4, 2019

Last Updated: March 4, 2019

Most family caregivers have instances where they experience guilt over how they’ve handled a situation with a parent or senior loved one and wonder if they could have done more. The guilt may be inevitable while caregiving, but it does not need to consume you.

Learn more about how to mitigate these thoughts by using these six tips for managing caregiving and guilt.

Caregiving and Guilt

Hellen Pollizi has been an attentive caregiver to her mother for over 28 years. After her mom had a stroke, Pollizi and her two young daughters moved across the country to take care of her. When her husband’s Army duty required another move, the dutiful daughter and only child drove two hours each way to visit her mom on weekends.

Last year, the Kansas City human relations specialist realized her 90-year-old mother needed more care; she’s now in assisted living nearby. Pollizi, a widow, visits six nights a week. “I don’t do what I do out of love, but out of guilt,” she says.

Her mother has accused her of wanting to “put her away” and more. “She has hurled so many hurtful comments at me. I am always in the giving mode and never in the receiving mode,” says Pollizi. “I don’t want to be that person anymore.”

Over the years, Pollizi has felt torn between her own family’s needs and her mother’s. When her daughters were young and would ask to do something fun with her on weekends, Pollizi would say:

“I felt guilty having to tell them “no” because we had to see Grandma. I didn’t want to go, either! There were opportunities missed with my own family. Now I feel guilty that I feel guilty but I am tired of living this way.”

Most family caregivers know those pangs. You think you don’t do enough for your parent or you don’t do it well enough; you don’t want to do it or doing it keeps you from something else. You regret how you’ve handled a situation, you can’t fix your parent or the issue, or, a source of great angst, you wish caregiving would just be over.

Patricia Farrell, the author of “How to Be Your Own Therapist” and a New Jersey clinical psychologist, says that “guilt is normal“. The thing to do is to understand where your guilt is coming from and if it is justified.”

But she also advises family caregivers to “be brutally honest with yourself.” Perhaps you need to talk with your parent or sibling to explain your side of the issue. Perhaps you need to change the way you are doing something.

Evelyn Goldstein, a Silver Spring, Maryland, social worker, believes guilt can be valuable.

“The real question is, what can I learn from my feelings? You have to come to accept them, determine what you are able to control and not take on more than you can handle,” she says.

How to Get a Grip on Guilt

Guilt may be inevitable, at least for most caregivers, but this emotion does not need to consume you.

Here are some ways to mitigate or make peace with these thoughts:

1. Be kind to yourself.

“Society tells us to ‘do more, do better, push your feelings down,'” says Jennifer Diamond, Oakland, California, family and marriage therapist. “Yet psychology research tells a different story. The more we reject our pain, the more pain we feel. So let’s not fight guilt. Let it be a signal to take a moment to breathe, to feel self-compassion. Can we allow ourselves to feel the heartbreak of this role reversal?”

Learn relaxation breathing to help when you are stressed. There are videos on YouTube that will tell you how to do it and Kristin Neff, clinical psychologist and University of Texas at Austin professor, has meditation exercises, gleaned from her research, to help foster self-compassion.

2. Nurture a support system.

It’s important to talk about and validate your feeling of guilt. It might be a caregiver support group, a close friend or fellow churchgoers. Other caregivers wrestle with these same thoughts and they might also have resources and strategies to share.

One family member often gets the brunt of the job. If you have siblings who can help but don’t, it’s time to change that dynamic. They can handle finances long-distance and be actively involved in other ways to ease your load. Insist they pick up the slack!

3. Practice the word “no.”

Set boundaries so that your parent’s expectations are reasonable.

As Goldstein suggests, “learn how to set limits and to tolerate those guilty feelings. Manage those emotions and you won’t deplete yourself.”

4. Reframe the problem.

Do you feel guilty that you don’t spend enough time with your parent or they’re asking to see you more and you can’t? Instead of focusing on the guilt and “shoulds,” think about it this way: I only have limited time so how can I make it quality time? How can you make it as good an experience as it can be?

Iris Castro’s mother passed away at age 74 after 14 years of early-onset Alzheimer’s. “My mother was my best friend. I wish I could have cared for her at home until the end but I didn’t have the financial resources and needed to work to support us,” says Castro, a 40-year-old social worker from Springfield, Massachusetts. “My conscience nags at me at night when I am trying to sleep. Guilt was always there and still is.” Farrell suggests caregivers ask themselves, “Did you fail to do something because you were being selfish or was it a request you couldn’t fulfill because of circumstances beyond your control?”

5. Take a break.

Ever heard of respite care? Have someone else stay or visit Dad — a professional, relative, sibling — or take him to a place equipped for short stays. If that’s not feasible, slotting time for yourself to do whatever relaxes you — going for a walk or reading a magazine, let’s say.

“You need to get some distance between you and the guilt, to recharge your batteries and gain perspective as to what might truly be going on,” says Farrell. “Is your parent using guilt as a weapon? Are you a pushover? Time to change that pronto! If you burn yourself out, it will not be helpful to your parents and will create resentment.”

Pollizi knows this push and pull all too well. “If I take time for myself, my mother will say, “Why aren’t you coming to see me?’ I sometimes fudge a story and say I have a work meeting when I am really going to get my nails done.”

6. Think ahead.

Consider how you will feel when your parents are gone. What do you need to do to be at peace with yourself? Then let that be your guide.

Are you a caregiver who has experienced guilt while caring for a parent or senior loved one? We’d like to hear your experiences and stories in the comments below.

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Sally Abrahms
Sally Abrahms
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