Caring for an aging parent or loved one can be extremely rewarding. It can also be one of the toughest jobs you’ll ever do. The challenges of caregiving often come with a wide range of emotions — including, sadly, guilt. If you’re dealing with caregiver guilt, read on for some ideas on how to manage it.
What is caregiver guilt?
Not enough: When you’re dealing with caregiver guilt, those two words tend to pop up a lot in your mental monologue:
- I’m not doing enough for Dad
- I’m not helping Mom enough with the house
- I’m not a good enough daughter — if I was, I wouldn’t feel so irritated when mom gets confused or forgets things.
- I’m not a good enough brother — my siblings are doing all the heavy lifting and taking care of Dad, and I’m selfish for living too far away to help them properly.
- I don’t have enough time, money, energy or skills to take care of my loved ones the way they deserve to be looked after.
If any of those sound familiar, you may be experiencing caregiver guilt. If you are, you may take some comfort in knowing that you’re not alone: caregiver guilt is very normal, and very common.
Here’s the not-so-good news: when you don’t acknowledge your guilty feelings, they can fester, which in turn can make it even harder for you to be the kind of caregiver you want to be, which may make you feel even guiltier. And the cycle continues.
Here’s the better news: when recognized and acknowledged, caregiver guilt can serve a useful purpose. It can be a signal that things need to change, and can propel us to improve our caregiving skills, and take better care of ourselves and our loved ones.
What triggers caregiver guilt?
Caregiver guilt can be triggered by any circumstance that complicates or challenges your ability to provide your loved one with the kind of care that you would provide for them in a perfect world.
- Maybe you live far away and can’t visit or provide hands-on help as often as you’d like.
- Or you have a sibling who is doing much more work than you, and you feel guilty that you can’t share the load.
- Caregiving can come with lots of expenses, and you may feel guilt around not being able to afford everything, or having less money than your siblings to contribute.
- If you’re spending a ton of time caring for an aging parent, you may feel guilty for not spending as much time with your spouse, your kids, or on your job.
- You may compare yourself to other people who seem to be managing so much better at this caregiving thing than you are, and feel guilty for not doing as good a job as they seem to be.
- You may feel selfish for taking time for yourself in the midst of what feels like a crisis.
- You might find yourself feeling irritable, impatient or angry with an elderly relative who needs care — and then feel guilty about those feelings, or about a snarky comment or outburst.
- You may feel like you should be able to do it all yourself, and then feel guilty about hiring extra help or moving your loved one into a nursing home — especially if you had promised that you’d “never put them in a home.”
Caregiver guilt can persist even after death. Adult children may feel like they didn’t do enough while their parent was alive. They may feel guilty for trouble they caused their parents growing up, or their roles in long-standing conflicts. Many caregivers feel a sense of relief after a loved one dies — and then feel guilty for feeling relieved. (What kind of person would be relieved that her mother was dead?) It can help to know that it’s perfectly normal, and incredibly common, to feel a sense of relief after a loved one has died and the stress of caring for them — and, often, watching them suffer — is lifted.
Symptoms of caregiver guilt
If you’re dealing with caregiver guilt, you’ll likely recognize many of the thoughts and situations outlined above.
Sometimes, though, caregivers can find it hard to recognize or acknowledge guilty feelings, pushing them down or ignoring them. But ignoring caregiver guilt won’t make it go away, and these feelings will often make themselves known in other ways. For example, you may have trouble eating, sleeping, or concentrating. You may experience physical symptoms like headaches, stomach aches, or heartburn. You may become depressed. Or you may find yourself coping in unhealthy ways:
- Numbing with food, alcohol, substances or impulsive behaviours like online shopping
- Lashing out at loved ones or even strangers
- Disappearing into social media, gaming or television
Managing caregiver guilt
Caregiver guilt is often a sign that something needs to change. So, when you feel the stirrings of guilt, it can be a good idea to ask yourself, “What needs to change here?” For example:
- Are you getting enough sleep, nutritious food, exercise, and downtime? When you’re caring for someone else, it can be easy to deplete your own needs or feel guilty about taking time for yourself. But it’s hard to take care of somebody for any length of time while ignoring your own physical and mental health. As the saying goes, you need to put on your own oxygen mask before you help somebody and theirs. See if you can build in time for a walk around the block with a friend, an online yoga practice, or a nap.
- Do you need some help? Caregivers fall into the trap of thinking that they have to do everything themselves. But that’s not realistic for most of us. You can ask for help — with meal preparation, household tasks, babysitting, respite care. You can also research and pay for these services. The CareEasy app lets you divide up tasks and financial obligations of people in your circle of care. (And if someone volunteers to drop by with dinner or sit with your mom for a couple of hours so you can go to a movie, practicing saying “Yes, thanks.”)
- Is this situation sustainable? Family members often feel incredibly guilty about the idea of moving an elderly loved one into an assisted living or nursing home. In many cases, though, moving to assisted living can be incredibly positive. It can reduce stress on all sides. And seniors who have been living alone may find themselves thriving in the company of other residents, and enjoying the activities and stimulation that a care setting can provide.
Sometimes, we can’t change things. Everyone gets older, and it’s a sad truth that aging for many people means a period of illness or decline that will persist no matter how hard we try. We also can’t change the past. Part of dealing with caregiver guilt is accepting the situations we can change, and coming to peace with them. In these situations, it can help to:
- Talk to someone who’s been there: Many local organizations, such as Alzheimer’s societies or cancer centres, offer in-person or online support groups for caregivers. It can be helpful to talk to someone in a similar situation.
- Ask yourself, “Do my feelings of guilt actually help my mother? Do they help me? Can they change anything about this situation?” If the answer is no, do your best to let go of the guilt and focus on what you can actually accomplish.
- Try to make peace with the past. Acknowledge the times where you wish you had acted differently, and apologize to your loved one. Do your best to forgive your parents or accept their past behaviours. If you’re having trouble forgiving and moving on, it can be a great idea to talk to a therapist.
Caregiver support is here
Don't deal with caregiver guilt alone! The CareEasy app brings family caregivers together on one platform to coordinate care, so you can get the support you need. Once you download the app and create your own account, you can create a Circle of Care and invite family and friends to start sharing tasks and expenses amongst your circle. Start getting the support you need, by downloading the CareEasy app below.