Was Putting Your Parent in a Nursing Home a Mistake?

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If there's one emotion that nearly anyone caring for vulnerable people can count on it is guilt. We feel guilty about a decision to take some kind of action. We feel guilty about a decision to wait. We feel guilty about asking others to help. We feel guilty about not asking for help. Caregiver guilt is human, and for most caregivers, the guilt is largely unearned.

Of course, we don't always make the right call regarding every circumstance. But we do our best. I'd hazard a guess that the most painful decision for most of us to make is whether or not it's in our loved one's best interests to place him or her in a nursing home. If it is also in our best interest, then the guilt looms even larger.

The Agingcare forum recently received a question from the agonized daughter of a woman whose mother needed increasing facility care. The daughter, who had been caring for her mother at home, said that her mother seemed to get more germs when she was in the rehab facility/nursing home. She worried that her decision to have the facility care for her mother during these heavy nursing challenges was causing her mother's ill health. Yet her mother was in the facility precisely because she had many health issues. What's the right decision?

Detaching from being the lifeline for our loved one

The woman's guilty feelings and worry are a normal response when we've been caring for someone on our own and then someone else takes over some of the duties. When my dad first needed nursing home care, I was worried about every little detail of his care. He was so very vulnerable. Even though, because my uncle was a resident of the same home I knew the staff well, fear that Dad would suffer from not having every attention I could give him gripped me for the first weeks. Eventually, I had to learn to detach a little. I knew it was painful and impractical for me to be so wrapped up in each detail of his life. The facility was excellent. Dad was as okay as he could be. He had daily attention from multiple family members. What more could I do?

If you are struggling with or regretting a decision to place your loved one in a care facility:

1. Realize that you didn't cause your loved ones illness or illnesses. He or she would continue to suffer from them whether you were the sole caregiver or there is outside help.

2. Understand that sometimes professional care is necessary for the safety or comfort of your loved one and/or for you to have some life apart from caregiving.

3. Take time to grieve your loss. Being the primary caregiver for a vulnerable person is a huge responsibility. We need to make decisions about things that often seem to have no right or wrong answers. Yet we have to decide. Once we've done so, there will be consequences, whether that means change, or for a time, life will stay as it is.

4. Learn to understand that you can't live life for other human beings. You can only help them so much. Total control of events isn't in your hands, either. Do your best, and then try to let go.

5. If you find that your loved one is being cared for in a substandard facility, or that abuse or neglect are possible, contact the long-term care ombudsman responsible for your area. The contact information for this person can be found on your state website or at www.ltcombudsman.org.

6. However, if for the most part your loved one is being well cared for, practice letting go. Do what you can for your loved one, and then move forward with your own life. You'll have more to bring to all of your relationships, and that benefits everyone.

Few aging parents or spouses would want their adult children or their mate to entirely give up living any kind of life apart from their needs. Try to remember that concept when you feel guilty about hiring outside help or placing a loved one in a nursing home.

You will still be part of the care team. You will still be your loved one's advocate. You will give much of your attention and your life to help him or her. Just don't give it all. Accept and respect reality. A commitment also to some life of your own will make you a more refreshed caregiver and protect against caregiver burnout. That's a wining situation for both sides.

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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68 Comments

I am going through unexpected hell with my 93 year old mother. It is a nightmare beyond description. I want to do everything in my power to make euthanasia legal. Why can we put a dog to sleep as soon as they are deemed uncomortable , but elderly adults who are begging to die cannot be accommodated. Our pets don't have to suffer, but our loved ones do!!!!
Mom (91 with dementia, but generally good health) has been in a nearby nursing home since Mid-August. While there's been a lot of adjustments, and she's been moved into the quieter, calmer dementia unit, she's about the same as she was at home. We're hopeful she'll make new friends, because she was so lonely and isolated in her house after outliving her sibs, and husband of 71 years. We've had a few incidents with changes in diet etc, but on the whole, she's fine. My husband don't have to sleep with one eye/ear open anymore and have time for ourselves after three years of caregiving. Sometimes I feel guilty for NOT feeling guilty! I sure love my mom, but I know she's getting great care...MUCH more than baby-sitting! I visit her everyday, and see how well she's cared for...and have peace over our decision. Hope this helps someone trying to make the big move. ♥
This is a great article in so many ways! If what I've read on this site over the past 2 years is any accurate sample at all, then there are more parent's who want their only child or one chosen child from among the siblings to give up their life totally for their care. That type of parent either has a narcissistic or borderline personality disorder.

I agree that most caregiver guilt is largely unearned for it has been programmed into our psyches from childhood far too often by a very intrusive parent(s).

Sometimes it is programmed into our psyches via a singular application of the Bible to only mean taking care of the person yourself, at home, even if it destroys your own health, your marriage, your relationships with your own children, your own financial future for your own retirement, etc. as I've heard some propose that spouses, etc. come and go, but you only have one mom. Yes, we only have one mother, but we don't need to spend our entire adult life living in her shadow as if we don't have a life of our own.

I'm sorry for those who have had bad experiences with bad nursing homes, but I'm glad that my mother is in a good nursing home. I visit at various times and days without letting anyone know that I am coming. My mom tried to live at home but no matter how we approached her taking her meds on time or taking them period, she would end up at the ER again. My step-dad and his helper thought they could take care of her after she got out of rehab after a stroke. They about killed her. My mother's health has been much better in the nursing home that it ever was at home. I'm on disability myself and so is my wife, plus we have two sons in college. Her health needs are far beyond our capacity to help with.

I feel sorry for those who are still blinded by the emotional blackmail of a selfish parent(s) via the standard means of F.O.G. fear, obligation and guilt. I feel sorry for those who are enmeshed with their parent(s) and live in their shadow without a life of their own and as I read once sometimes feeling bad about being the one who is still alive and wanting mom to come back and tell them it was ok for them to have a normal life.