There is an old joke among therapists that will make some laugh and some cry:
A therapist asks a middle aged patient “Do you have a close relationship with your mother?” the woman answers, “Yes. We spend a lot of time traveling together.” The therapist replies, “That is wonderful. Where do you go? “The patient answers – “mainly on Guilt Trips”.
Moving past guilt is one of the most challenging emotional struggles of care giving. So many factors play into feeling guilty. Caregiving is tough on relationships in general, and as parents age complicates your relationship with elderly parents. Feelings change from day to day and often resemble a roller coaster ride that can make you sick to your stomach. Along with the emotional and psychological factors involved in care taking, the physical exhaustion can (and does) make the healthiest of care givers seriously ill.
Feelings of guilt, frustration and anger are normal. It is okay to be upset. Let yourself be upset, but make a commitment not to allow these feelings to dominate the difficulty of the situation and interfere with the end goal of doing the best and most loving job you can do as a caretaker. Not easy I know. Try to remember this is not the stage in life to damage parental relationships. You don’t have that much time to mend fences. Anticipate your parent or loved one will push those buttons making you feel “guilty”. Identifying which buttons those are are will cut down of the surprise element, and as a result lower your knee jerk reaction that can be hurtful.
Changing your perspective just might help turn these Guilt Trips into Joy Rides:
Don’t allow yourself to second guess or obsess. The “could-a, would-a, should-a” been moments further add to our guilty feelings, creating an emotional vicious cycle of doubt. The tendency to ruminate over our eldercare decisions doesn’t help anyone – especially not our elders. Replaying conversations from days, months or years past does not guarantee the right decision will be made. Staying in the present provides a greater degree of clarity and results in more favorable outcomes for all. This second-guessing can turn the already finite time we have to spend with our parents into even more stressful and anxious experiences.
Take one step at a time. We have the tendency to “rush” everything we do when care taking elders. We fear everything is an emergency, and that we are solely responsible for every outcome. These fears lead to excessive worry, which never helps. Focusing on small victories helps alleviate our guilt. Small victories include creating meaningful moments and days. Those are the memories to take away when your parent is gone. No one wants to be haunted by nightmares of unkind words and actions?
Empower your parents. They still want to feel that they are an important part of the family. They are the family historian by default since they have lived the longest, so let them share their cultural knowledge. It is their legacy they are leaving and by letting them communicate allows them to bestow a true gift to future generations. They appreciate the longevity of their family and fear their role has been diminished by YOU. Sometimes we feel guilty taking over, but someone’s got to make decisions and get things done. It is okay, just include your parent or loved one in aspects of family decision making that they are capable of making (little or great).
Focus on love, not obligation. While many of us have no choice but to help care for an elderly parent, try to be motivated by love and compassion, rather than by obligation. Even if you can’t separate the two emotions, try not to reveal your burdened feelings. Remember that one day you will be sitting in their recliner or rocking chair. What would you want your children to do? Actually, the way you are treating your aging parent is a role model that your own children will someday emulate. So be careful!
Change your perspective on the job. See caregiving as an opportunity to say thank you. Make it a positive experience, as it can redefine a relationship with a parent or strengthen relationships with siblings. It can increase your feelings of selflessness and help diffuse feelings of guilt.
Recognize that we all have feelings of inadequacy and guilt and frustration. They are normal emotions. Allow yourself to acknowledge these emotions. Explore them with your spouse, friends or therapist – then and let them go. Know what your strengths are, but also accept you are not a super hero and that there are real limits to what you can do. Forgive your parent and seek forgiveness if there are old wounds. Longstanding resentments and unresolved issues can worsen guilty feelings. Now may be the time to finally have a heart-to-heart that focuses on letting go of hurts.
Lastly, and most importantly – Don’t feel guilty about feeling guilty.