Managing Caregiver Guilt

Why You Feel Guilt and How to Manage It

Written by Meg Pemberton MHA BSN RN, Geriatric Care Manager

I recently spent an afternoon sitting in with a caregiver support group at a local church. I met several strong caregivers dealing with different yet similar situations. Each of them caring for a loved one and each of them experiencing some level of guilt. The meeting reminded me of my own guilt as a family caregiver. I cared for my parents, one with severe heart disease and one with Alzheimer’s disease. At one point during my caregiving journey Dad shared that should my mom die first he wanted to live with me. I wasn’t able to honor his wish. I feel guilty about this yet I have learned to manage it. I’d like to share some thoughts and practical tips to help you do the same.

Feeling Guilty is Normal

First, it is important to understand why you’re feeling guilty and that it’s normal. Guilt begins early in the journey and may not necessarily be related to the loved one you care for. Initially you may resent time away from family and friends. Suddenly you have no time for yourself leading to anger which you then feel guilty about. You may have unresolved issues that hinder your ability to provide care. Comparing yourself to others or listening to negative feedback re your caregiving will make you feel less confident. Finally, dealing with your own issues may impact your ability to care. When you provide care in lieu of self-care you may be angry and feel guilty. All caregivers experience some guilt along their journey. Know that you are in good company.

Once acknowledged, guilt can be managed. You are human and as such you are unique, you have flaws, and you’ll make mistakes. You may be better at some aspects of caregiving than others. Recognize the good and the bad. Optimize your strengths. Seek support for the things you feel less prepared to deal with. Look at the big picture. As you power through you will have good days and bad days. Learn from the bad to make the good ones more plentiful. Most importantly, take time for yourself. Recharge yourself regularly. Always remind yourself that you are doing the best you can for your loved one.

Tips for Managing Guilt
  • Establish Priorities

You may never feel as though you have enough time to do it all. Few if any caregivers actually do have enough time. Identify what’s most important. Make a list ranking from most important to least important. Prioritize using the list while recognizing the need to be flexible for the unexpected events along the journey. Knowing you are taking care of priority needs will alleviate significant stress.

  • Set Limits

If you’re stressed over constant demands don’t be afraid to set limits. Be honest with yourself and your loved one about what you can and cannot do. Stick to the limits. Don’t feel guilty about what you cannot physically or emotionally do.

  • Understand What Caregiving Means to You

Not everyone is able to provide the more intimate, hands on care our loved ones often need. Think bathing and toileting. Don’t feel guilty about this. Rather find other ways in which you are comfortable caring.  Perhaps it’s providing transport, companionship or contributing financially.

  • Caregiving for a Loved One is Not Repayment

Too often we hear the sentiment about how we should care for our parents because they cared for us. I’ve said and thought that myself. However, caregiving should be an act of love rather than a chore to pay back a debt. Not everyone is meant to be a caregiver. Some are far better at being care recipients. Don’t add to your guilt by pushing yourself to provide care particularly when there are other options available to you. If you must provide care when you feel inadequate, unprepared or just not capable, acknowledge it and seek help.

  • Forgiveness is a Good Thing

Resolve those unresolved issues as best you can. Remember that forgiving someone is a gift you give yourself. When you forgive someone, you’re not saying that what they did was right. You are forgiving them so you can move forward.

  • Foster Your Loved One’s Independence

Don’t let guilt consume you if you encourage your loved one to do for themselves what they can indeed do for themselves. Likewise, don’t overdo for them either to make yourself feel better. As long as they are safe, their independence will feed their soul and ease the journey for both of you.

  • Know When to Take a Break

Self-care is extremely important and worthy of its own blog (coming soon). You will need help; you will need to take time away from the situation. So, when a family member or friend offers help give them a date, time, and task to complete. Never say thanks with the intent to call them later. You won’t and even if you do they likely won’t be available. Catch them in the moment and thank them after! Additionally, seek and find resources for respite care. Many assisted living and skilled care facilities offer short stays for your loved one so you can take a break. When was the last time you vacationed? Even a staycation can feed your soul and refresh you. You’ll be a better caregiver for it.

  • Don’t be Afraid to Acknowledge the Facts

Despite all you may be doing to care for your loved one, he or she may need more than you can provide no matter the resources you’ve been able to pull in to support the effort. 24 hour care and constant supervision is overwhelming and can be more costly, in dollars and to your well-being, than alternatives outside of the home. It’s okay to accept that your loved one may actually find really good care if not the best possible care outside of his or her home (and yours).

Support is Mandatory

In the United States there are approximately 40.5 million family caregivers for people age 65 or older. If you’re a caregiver you are not alone. The caregiving journey is not meant to be traversed alone. Support is not only necessary it is mandatory. I tell my clients that in order to be the best caregiver they want to be they have to take care of themselves first. So, seek help, find resources, ask questions, do what you can, let go of what you cannot do, and manage your guilt. Notice I didn’t say “don’t feel guilty!” You will feel guilty just be sure to manage it. You and your loved one will be better for it indeed.

Where can you find resources to help?

For those of you in the Fredericksburg Virginia area:

Call us, we can help!

ElderCare Connections: 540-419-4387

Healthy Generations AKA Rappahannock Area on Aging

To find the Area Agency on Aging near you:

National Association of Area Agencies on Aging

To find a Geriatric Care Manger/Aging Life Care Expert near you:

Aging Life Care Association

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