Stop Feeling Guilty
Caregivers can feel guilty for more than just taking time alone, making mistakes, or feeling angry at their loved one.
Caring for an aging family member or friend is hard work. No matter if you are providing daily care or coordinating care from afar, your new role as a caregiver comes with a list of feelings that may surprise you. One thing is certain, though – you are not alone. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately one-quarter of Americans over the age of 18 reported providing care or assistance to someone with a disability or long-term illness in the past month. Family members or friends who provide this type of support, whether in person or from a distance, are considered unpaid caregivers and are subject to increased amounts of stress and illness due to their role.
While unpaid caregivers are at an increased risk for physical health decline, the emotional stress that comes from caring for an aging adult can be even more detrimental to their health. Family caregivers can have an increased risk of depression or anxiety, even if they live far away from their elderly loved one.
You can preserve your own physical and mental health by taking active steps to take care of yourself. The term self-care may seem like a passing trend in conversations between therapists and clients, but making time to take care of yourself will protect your own health while also giving you the energy to be the best caregiver for your loved one.
One way to take care of yourself during your time as a caregiver, whether from nearby or afar, is to resist the urge to feel guilty. Your feelings of guilt can cause you to eliminate self-care routines from your week and can even lead to more feelings of loneliness, isolation, depression, or anxiety.
Why do you feel guilty?
Before you can stop feeling guilty intermittently in your role as a caregiver, you must uncover why you are feeling guilty in the first place. Feelings of guilt come from caregivers feeling they have done something wrong. However, that “something wrong” can vary from caregiver to caregiver, and even from day to day.
Feeling guilty to take time for yourself
Perhaps you are feeling guilty for taking time away from your role as a caregiver. Many caregivers feel anxiety and guilt when leaving for their own vacation or work trip - though feelings of guilt can pop up during situations that don’t require travel. You may find yourself feeling guilty if you need to skip a weekly visit in order to meet work obligations or to attend your child’s high school soccer game. In each of these situations, you are feeling guilty for missing out on time with your aging loved one in order to spend time with others who need your attention (work colleagues, children, spouses, etc.).
If you are feeling guilty in these situations, you can imagine those feelings intensifying when you miss out on caregiving duties to take your weekly yoga class or simply to squeeze in a nap. These self-care choices are important for refilling your energy and keeping you healthy; these practices are crucial for your own mental and physical health. Unfortunately, caregivers skip these times spent alone due to those feelings of guilt.
The Mayo Clinic reports that focusing on others, like your aging loved one or other family members, can prevent you from taking care of yourself. The result of missing the time caring for yourself can result in poor physical and emotional health. In order to beat the guilt for taking time for yourself, or for your other life roles, is to get help, set your own personal goals, and to schedule appropriately.
First, if you are feeling guilty about leaving your caregiving duties to spend time at your book club or sipping coffee by yourself, arrange help for your loved one while you are away. Most home health care agencies offer respite care at reasonable prices, and you can feel confident that your loved one is still receiving excellent care while you are away. Respite care services can vary from longer time frames, like a week while you go on vacation, to shorter times when you just need a few hours to yourself. If your loved one requires more extensive medical needs, check in with a local skilled nursing facility; most offer respite care stays when they have beds available.
Next, the Mayo Clinic suggests setting your own personal goals to help you beat feelings of guilt due to time alone. Make a goal to run a 5k or to improve your blood pressure, and write them down. You can use these small health goals as a reminder of why you are spending time running in the morning instead of caregiving. It will help you remember to take care of yourself as well as others.
Finally, in order to beat guilt for spending time focusing on yourself, make sure it is scheduled on your calendar. Don’t wait until you are angry, resentful or sick to plan time away from your role. Instead, proactively schedule two hours each week for yourself. You can schedule help or respite care during these pre-set times, which will make it a part of your weekly routine.
Feeling guilty for caregiving mistakes or mishaps
Caregivers can feel guilty for missing a phone call check-in with their loved one, or for being late to pick them up for a doctor appointment. Making mistakes while caring, or coordinating care, for your loved one will happen throughout your time in that role. Instead of focusing on the mistake, choose to focus your energy on how you can prevent it from happening again. This transforms guilt into empowerment, which can be better for your overall mental health.
When you make a caregiving mistake, first assure your loved one’s safety. Some situations, like a medication mixup, can warrant a call to the doctor or trip to the emergency room. Other minor mistakes, like forgetting to call and check-in, can cause hurt feelings or confusion. In any case, your loved one’s safety is priority number one.
Once that is established, assess your own emotional health. Are you feeling scared or anxious? Take a deep breath and remind yourself that your loved one is safe and the situation is over. Finally, evaluate the situation and see if there are any preventative measures or habits that you can put into place to decrease the chance of the same mistake happening again. For a medication mixup, could you consider using a pillbox or app reminder? For a missed call, could you try setting an alarm on your phone to make regular calls easier to remember during your busy days? This problem-solving approach gives you the chance to release your guilt and try again.
Feeling guilty for anger, resentment, or relief
Finally, most caregivers experience feelings of anger or resentment toward their loved one while in a caregiving role. Unfortunately, most caregivers will not readily admit to these feelings. This secrecy can lead you to think you are the only one who is angry or resentful toward your Mom during your caregiving experience. Don’t feel guilty about your mix of feelings during caregiving. Instead, recognize your feelings and find a support network.
Your feelings are always valid, even when they may feel ugly or unfair. If you notice feeling angry or resentful during caregiving tasks, take a deep breath and remember the feeling will pass. Don’t act out on the feelings by saying hurtful words. Instead, leave the situation if you need to (and if your loved one is safe) to decompress and try again another time. Evalute the last time you had help with your caregiving tasks, and schedule time away.
Most importantly, to beat feelings of guilt for feeling anger, find a peer support group. Most hospitals or senior care communities offer caregiver support groups. Find one that you feel comfortable in, and begin going on a consistent basis. Don’t be afraid to share your feelings or to talk about your situation. You will be pleasantly surprised that you are certainly not alone as others begin to share their own feelings. If you cannot find a support group near you, make a regular appointment with a family therapist or counselor to receive encouragement and coping strategies.
How can you stop feeling guilty?
Caregivers can feel guilty for more than just taking time alone, making mistakes, or feeling angry at their loved one. If you find yourself feeling guilty or not good enough, you should first determine the root cause of those feelings. Try carrying a journal, or use a voice recorder app on your phone, and note when you feel guilty during your caregiving role. You can then use these notes to determine what is causing you to feel guilty. Once you can notice which situations make you feel that way, you can work on finding other coping skills or perspectives to help you through.
There are certain truths of the caregiving journey. You will feel mixed emotions. You will feel like you are not doing enough, while simultaneously feeling you are doing too much. In any case, you will make it through with the support of others around you, by asking for help, and by making your own health a priority.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (28 March 2018). Alzheimer’s disease and healthy aging: Caregiving. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/aging/caregiving/index.htm
- Mayo Clinic Staff. (19 January 2018). Caregiver stress: Tips for taking care of yourself. Retrieved from https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/stress-management/in-depth/caregiver-stress/art-20044784