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.

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

Follow this author

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.

Minding Our Elders

View full profile

You May Also Like

Free AgingCare Guides

Get the latest care advice and articles delivered to your inbox!


This article hits home, I think, because caregivers are by nature kind and giving. I believe that is one reason that they have stepped up, so to speak, and taken on caregiving tasks. This trait of kindness can be exploited and abused, however, by other human beings. And caregivers need to remember to care for themselves too. That we count too. We need to own the right to say "no". And we need to be aware of when a person is trouncing upon a boundary which protects our human rights. And then we need to say no, if that is what we want to do and it is in the interests of our own self-preservation (of health and sanity) .And here's the kicker......We need to be able to tolerate the aftermath of our saying no. There will surely come consequences.....someone being upset with us, putting pressure on us to give in and do what we really don't want to do, saying things to try to make us feel guilty, or else even US the caregivers creating our own sense of guilt which is not helpful to ourselves. It is not healthy or deserved guilt. I am learning to listen to my own heart and to my own Creator, God, who is telling me what to do----not what people are telling me to do. And then, yes, I lose the guilt. I cannot be strong to take care of my parents if I am slowed down, or even crippled, by neurotic guilt. I have a job to do.
I am working on my guilt issues, currenly Mom lives with us and I feel guilty that I want to move her to assisted living. I was married a year and a half when she came to live with my husband and I, we got along great before she came...we are not getting along so well in the last several months. She has been here for the last year. She has severe dementia and a personality disorder...we originally bought a new home and finished the basement for her, have a woman that comes in 3 hrs a day (week days)...Mom decided she wanted to move upstairs into our personal part of the house even though we eat breakfast and dinner with her everyday....she just did not like the "basement", an ego friendly 2000SF brand new walk out living space. So now she has moved into a guest room that is right at the top of the stairs of our master bedroom. She eats all meals with us (me) now, she comes into our livingspace 20 times a day instead of 5-6....she needs the heat on upstairs, even in the summer. The basement heat stayed on, now she needs the heat on upstairs...and thats where the tv room is (needless to say my husband who hates it hot is muttering to himself the last week about the heat); and comes home from work daily and is instantly moody, I have been dealing with Mom all day (I work at home), she talks about me to her p/t caregiver everyday--its 50/50, she loves me but I can never do enough--I am trying to keep my husband happy (and positive-he is getting negative about things lately) and I feel like I am disappearing and I just want to walk out. So I have been considering assisted living which she doesn't have the money for so I will somehow have to figure out how to get assistance/or partially pay for...I feel guilty...and at the same time, I feel alone, hurt and close to my own personal break down.
Brokenhearted, I can really relate to your comments. My mother is currently living in a nice apt. at a retirement community 5 minutes away from us. She sees us at least twice a day...I bring her over for lunches and for dinner, and socializing. When we have big family gatherings she is always right in the middle of it. But, she is always asking if she can come and live with us. We have room for her, where she'd have her own bedroom, sitting room, and bathroom. But my husband is reluctant to have this happen, because he is afraid that she'd want to be around us all the time, and forget the boundaries, etc. I think she'd be content to stay in her part of the home with her kitty, watching her favorite programs and napping (wich she does a lot of) but I am concerned that it might not be the case. Her memory is getting fuzzier all the time, and she tells me that she gets disoriented and can't quite remember what and when she's supposed to be doing things. She doesn't go down to any of the meals that the retirement village offers because she's afraid of getting lost, and not finding her way back to her apt. So, if we have other plans for dinner, or go out of town, I have her dinner delivered to her and make arrangements for my daughter to visit w/ her during the day. But, I am thinking that it may be time to have her come to live with us. I worry that if she was forced to go to assisted living (which they have a very nice one right in the same retirement village) that she would go down hill rapidly. She is very adamant that she does not want to go to assisted living. A big thing is she'd have to give up her cat, who she is very much attached to.) My intended approach is to give her a choice:
Either she can remain in her independant apt. w/ kitty and continue as we have been.
Or she can move in with us to a nice, comfortable basement apartment, but she will have to realize that there will be boundaries, and that my husband and I will need our space and time alone. I've talked to her about this, and she says she would definitely understand our privacy needs, and would just be content to be part of the family, and would not interfere or be in the way....but just be quitely around. ;)
Our home is in the country (somewhat isolated on 5 acres) so when we leave for social events now and then, she would be alone....for several hours maybe), and if we leave for longer periods I would arrange to have someone come to the home to be with her.
I'm just unsure if this plan is the right thing to do, or not. I want her to be happy, but I want her to be safe too, of course. And I have to consider my husband and myself, as well. We are in our 60's, so we aren't "spring chickens" either, and want to enjoy what good times are left to enjoy, so to speak. It's a big dilemna for me right now. A big decision to grapple with, to do the best thing for all of us. I keep feeling that Mom won't have too many more years left, but who knows......she's relatively healthy, but quite frail.
Anyway, thanks for listening. I appreciate everyone's experiences. It helps immensely to read about others' situations.