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Practical Caregiving

Guilt Is a Common Caregiver Affliction - Let's Avoid It

By Jean Donahue

Do any of these questions and statements sound familiar?

. . . Should I put them in a nursing home?

. . . Could I keep them home longer?

. . . I'm at the nursing home twice a day but my husband still complains that I'm not there enough.

. . . She isn't happy with anything that I do.

. . . I should be able to do more.

. . . I wish I didn't have to do this.

If you are a family caregiver you probably have found yourself speaking words similar to these. Questions and statements like these are the result of caregiver guilt.

Let's look at an example: Jane (79 years old) has been taking care of her husband, Tom (83 years old), at home. Jane has lost weight, her blood pressure has gone up, she hurt her back and she is very nervous. She still feels she should be able to take care of Tom. He has always been there for her when she needed help, and she wants to be there for him now that he needs her help. The rest of their family and Jane's doctor insist that she put Tom in a nursing home.

Jane is trying to do the impossible -- be a superhuman wife, soul-mate and caregiver. Her health is getting worse and, as a result, she is unable to take care of Tom the way she should. It probably won't be much longer until she has a stroke, heart attack or some other major health problem that will either make it impossible for her to take care of Tom at all -- or it will take her life.

She can't see this, though. All she sees is that she should be able to take care of Tom. She feels guilty because she can't do everything she thinks she should do.

You are seeing caregiver guilt in action. Jane has pushed herself to do things beyond her physical and mental ability, and she hasn't arranged for the help she needs. She should have asked for help a long time ago, before her health started to suffer.

Why didn't she ask for help and why didn't she take better care of herself? There are probable several answers to that question.

  • You, the family caregiver, usually think of the needs of your loved one and forget about your needs.
  • You feel guilty thinking about your needs when your loved one is fighting a difficult or losing battle.
  • You feel angry that your loved one is so ill and that you have to take care of them.
  • You don't want your loved one to die -- but they will die and it can't be stopped.
  • You are angry because your loved one is ill and going to leave you, probably alone.
  • You are also grieving the gradual loss of your loved one. It just takes longer than a sudden death.
  • Then there are the family issues. Sometimes it's during these stressful times that people get upset and turn against each other.
  • You look forward to the day when your loved one will no longer be in your care, but at the same time you don't want them to die.

It's all very complex, but there are guiltless ways for you, the family caregiver, to get your own life back while taking care of your loved one.

  • Realize that you are doing the best you can - and that is probably enough.
  • Ask for help. There are agencies that come into the home to help, making it possible for you to get outside the house. Friends or family can visit your loved one in a nursing home or other residential setting, giving you free time. Stop trying to do everything and be everything to your loved one.
  • Look beyond the present situation. It won't last forever. It will end. Your loved one won't suffer forever, and nor will you.
  • Go shopping, visit a friend or do something else that is relaxing. As a caregiver, I talked to friends and relatives on the telephone and through email and hired someone to come in while I drove to the bridges in Madison County here in Iowa to take pictures. (That's right. The bridges in the book and movie are about 40 miles from where I live.)
  • Find a way to get some exercise. PLEASE be sure to get your exercise. I didn't and afterward I had a hard time walking from the car into a grocery store. That was a startling feeling.
  • Be sure to eat healthy. You don't want to become ill yourself.
  • Get more information. Ask a nurse, doctor, social worker, search the Internet or ask anyone who might have the information you need.
Join a support group on the Internet or in your city. Other people might have ideas you can implement, and you might know something they need to know. It helps to express your feelings to someone who won't judge you because they have been there and they understand.