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Feel at Peace: Lose the Caregiver Guilt

Scene one: The first call of the day from your mom you can handle.

"Oh, hi, Mom. Yes, it's a pretty day. Maybe you should walk down the hall and see Marian?" You chat awhile and then say, "Bye. Love you, too."

Five minutes pass. You answer the ringing phone again.

"Hi, Mom. Yes, it's a pretty day. Are you going down to see Marian, like I suggested when you called earlier? (this seems polite and gentle). "Yeah, you did call earlier. You just forgot. No problem. Love you. Bye."

Six more minutes and the phone rings again. You see it on caller ID. And you ignore it. The rule of three has kicked in and you let it go. You know Mom's okay as you've already talked. She has heard your voice. It's okay to ignore the call. But still, you feel guilty.

Get used to it – the guilt I mean. The phone thing was just one of the games I had to play. When Mom would call the first time, I'd answer and see how she was doing. The second time, I'd gently try to let her know she had just called. The third time – well, sometimes it just seemed better to ignore it. I knew she would be embarrassed (or else think I was lying, depending on the day) if I told her she'd called three times within 15 minutes. It seemed kinder to just not answer the phone and let her forget that she called.

Guilt has a purpose in life. If we are mean, we should feel guilty. If we owe someone an apology, we should be big enough to do so. But guilt is a complicated emotion. We take on the expectations of our culture, our religion, our family. And then we take on the expectations of our toughest critic – ourselves. That committee that meets in our head tells us we are not doing this caregiving thing well enough. If we were "good" people, we'd just keep answering the phone endlessly until Mom found something else to do.

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Over the span of two decades, author, columnist, consultant and speaker Carol Bradley Bursack cared for a neighbor and six elderly family members. Her experiences inspired her to pen, "Minding Our Elders: Caregivers Share Their Personal Stories," a portable support group book for caregivers.

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