Taking Care of Guilt: Caregiving for Older Adults

By Carol J. Farran

Guilt is an emotion we’ve all experienced at one time or another. But if you take care of an older adult — whether it’s a spouse, parent or other relative or friend — guilt can be overwhelming at times. It may even cause you to push yourself beyond your limits and, in the process, to neglect your own physical and emotional needs.

The best way to get a handle on your guilt is to understand where it comes from. Although we tend to label guilt as a negative emotion, it isn’t always. For instance, the guilt you feel when taking care of an older adult can be closely related to feelings of empathy, regret, loss or grief. You may feel guilty that your relative or friend is sick while you’re healthy, that they can’t do things or go places like they used to, or that you’re powerless to change their situation. In these cases, guilt is a normal, human response.

Guilt can also result from making promises — like telling your parents you’ll never put them in a nursing home — that you may be unable to keep. Promises are made with the best of intentions, but it’s not possible to know how a person’s physical or mental health will progress. When faced with this type of dilemma, try to choose the option that’s best for your relative or friend, regardless of past promises, and involve him or her in the decision-making process as much as possible.

A Balancing Act

Problems can arise when guilt stems from unrealistic expectations. A lot of unrealistic guilt is related to feeling that your entire life must be focused on the person you’re caring for, at the expense of everything else. It’s understandable, because the demands are there all the time. But if you don’t step back sometimes from your role as caregiver, you’ll lose the balance in your life.

Losing balance can be detrimental to your health and well being. A caregiver’s risk for both mental distress and physical illness is greater than that of their non-caregiving peers. So it’s essential for caregivers to lead a “two-track life,” with one track devoted to caregiving and the other devoted to self-care. Here are a few tips for carving out a life separate from your caregiving situation:

  • Make some time every week to do things you enjoy — reading, playing a sport, shopping, dining out. These breaks will rejuvenate your body and spirit.
  • Pay attention to your own health by eating right, getting enough sleep, going for your routine doctor’s appointments and monitoring any medical problems you may have.
  • Put programs and services in place — from meal delivery programs to adult day care — to supplement the care you provide.
  • Accept and ask for help. Make a list of people who have offered or might be willing to lend a hand with specific tasks like shopping, cleaning, cooking or providing transportation to doctor’s appointments. Give them choices, “You can help me with this or that.”

If you start to feel guilty, remember that self-care isn’t a luxury, it’s a necessity. Having a life of your own doesn’t make you a bad caregiver or a bad person. The bottom line is that if you don’t take care of yourself, you won’t be able to take care of anyone else.

Carol J. Farran, DNSc, RN, FAAN, is professor and the Nurses Alumni Association Chair in Health and the Aging Process in the Rush College of Nursing. Her research focuses on the mental and physical health of family caregivers of persons with Alzheimer’s disease. She can be reached by e-mail at carol_j_farran@rush.edu.

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