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.

Why Caregivers Feel Guilty

Scene two: You're visiting Mom in her apartment and you've been there long enough to do laundry and clean up the bathroom and kitchen. You visit a bit. She is watching her favorite show on TV, which you hate, but she wants your company. You've got kids coming home, but not for awhile. Would a little white lie be okay? I mean, is it awful to want to have a half-hour between Mom and kids; a half-hour for yourself to regain some sense of tranquility?

You say to Mom, "Jenny's coming home, so I'd better get going. You enjoy your show and I'll check with you later."

Then you run out and jump in your car, drive home and grab a soda. You put up your feet and listen to the blessed silence. And feel guilty.

Again, get used to it. These are typical caregiver guilt feelings. You never will do it all so well that everyone is happy. You have to remember that you, too, are part of the equation. Talk with other caregivers. When people feel safe, as they often do in a group or even chatting with one other caregiver, they let down their guard. They can admit that they do the same thing.

Much of the guilt caregivers feel is, like the above, rather minimal in nature. However, there are things that linger after death that can cause guilt as well – or perhaps just regret. It's hard to say which.

Start Forgiving Yourself To Stop Guilt

I remember a time when I wrote my grandma, who lived two hundred miles away, a letter once a week. She told me once how much those letters meant to her. But then – in my mind it was right after that letter from her telling me how much she loved our correspondence, but more likely it was a month or two – I went through a serious personal crisis. Her regular supply of letters from me dried up. Eventually I returned to writing her, but I had moved several states away and she had declined. I wasn't even there when she died. I feel guilt about that.

While I'm baring my soul, I'll say I wish I had known more about the need for physical touch later as my parents were dying. I was there. I was present. And yes, I did talk to them, touch them and keep them comfortable. However, as I've read more about physical death and the dying, as I've studied more hospice material, as I've talked with more people who have attended more deathbeds, I've found myself feeling guilty. I feel that I was less than perfect in how I handled their deaths.

Does my guilt over any of these things help anyone now? That is what I have to ask myself when I find my mind mulling over these old issues. Nothing, absolutely nothing, can change things. I didn't do anything terrible. I just didn't do my "caregiving" as perfectly as I'd like to have done. Wallowing in guilt helps no one.

My solution? Move forward. Tell people my stories. Tell them my successes and my failures. When I do that, it gives me hope. I think that maybe one more person will hold their loved one more, comb his or her hair, lotion his or her skin – just spend more time touching than they would have spent had I not told my story. And maybe there's someone reading this who has neglected writing a note to an elder because he or she is "too busy." Maybe that person will sit down and write. If that happens, then I've made my amends. It's all I can do, as I can't live my life over, nor do I want to.

Then I need to forgive myself for all of my imperfections. I am human. I do my best with what I have at the moment, and that has to be good enough. Guilt erodes the soul. Be done with it.

Carol Bradley Bursack

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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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