This woman has plenty of company in trying to balance love, caregiving and guilt. Some 52 million Americans care for a disabled or sick family member, according to a survey conducted by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. And although most bear their burden with love, social workers say caregiving is so demanding that most people feel inadequate.
Beware of guilt, experts warn. Eventually, such emotions can exact a heavy toll on the health of the caregiver – and that hurts everyone involved.
Of all the emotional hurdles family caregivers face – including anger and resentment – guilt is the most pervasive. Caregivers feel it’s their obligation to make these years the happiest. But none of us has that power. When caregivers have expectations that are unrealistic, that’s when the guilt comes in.
To make matters worse, people caring for a sick parent often find it difficult to ask for help or parcel out tasks to friends or professionals. The voice of the responsible child whispers in our minds: “She raised me. I should take care of her now, no matter how hard it is.”
People feel guilt because they think that somehow there’s something they could, might, should, would have done, but the “perfect ending” never happens, no matter how well prepared a family is. None of us can prepare for how we are going to feel.
America’s goal-oriented, independent-minded society works indirectly to boost feelings of guilt. We think we ought to be able to control things. So there’s an extra layer of guilt if it doesn’t go the way we want or expect.
Caregivers need to cut themselves some slack, experts say, or their own health may suffer. Researchers at Indiana University, for instance, recently surveyed 3,000 women. They found that the longer women cared for a sick relative, the more likely they were to suffer depression, insomnia, and even physical difficulties climbing stairs or lifting heavy objects.
What can caregivers do to protect both themselves and their loved ones? Most importantly, turn to community programs and professional resources for help, as well as to family or friends. In Contra Costa County, call the Area Agency on Aging (2530 Arnold Drive, Martinez) at 335-8700. The agency maintains a database and brochures on local home- and community-based services available to anyone in the county. Additionally, disease-related groups such as the Alzheimer’s Association maintain caregiver support groups, as do local hospitals such as John Muir and Mt. Diablo.
Guilt is driven, in part, by the lack of access to information, especially during a crisis. It’s brought on by trying to get through the morass of needs and decisions and not knowing what supports and services are available. Often there hasn’t been anyone there to tell us what we might need until we actually need it, so there’s tremendous guilt in feeling we haven’t done enough.
Consider joining a support group – either in person or on the Internet – so you can share feelings and frustrations with others who understand your situation. And make sure to acknowledge your limits; you can say “no” without closing your heart.
Some caregivers let go of their old life, and learn that their new life, though difficult, is still full of rewards. Others let go of control, and learn to delegate caregiving chores to others. No matter which choice you make, remember that your best is good enough.
©2007 Beth Witrogen is an Antioch writer with two Pulitzer nominations, including
“Caregiving: The Spiritual Journey of Love, Loss, and Renewal.” Visit her at www.witrogen.com.