The 4 Most Embarrassing Caregiver Moments

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Caregiving throws many challenges our way, including care routines for our elders that they once performed for us when we were babies.

1. Taking care of their "bathroom issues"
Incontinence and trouble with toileting are common among the elderly. Many of you are changing a parent's incontinence briefs. While I never had to do that, there is a day from my past related to this type of care that is branded onto my brain. My dad had endured one of his many surgeries, though he was at home recovering. Mom had taken care of his toileting needs since he arrived home from the hospital, however one day when I was sitting with Dad so Mom could go out for awhile, he had to go to the bathroom. I certainly didn't mind helping him, but my heart was heavy with the thought that, since Dad was still cognitively stable, he would feel that his daughter helping him with such personal needs was embarrassing.

As it turned out, I needn't have feared. Dad was pragmatic when it came to the human body, and he welcomed my help without any sign of embarrassment. Since I sat with dad often, I quickly came to the point that the whole process was routine. Still, I've never forgotten the emotion involved that first time.

I've heard from male caregivers who think nothing of changing their mother's diapers. Diaper changing for them is an act of love, just as feeding her would be. Some men, however, feel great embarrassment when they first attempt this physically intimate duty. I don't believe that their response is the result of prudishness. I sense it's the same feeling I experienced with my dad. Something seems abnormal about handling a parent's most personal physical needs. It seems almost disrespectful. Most of us get over this feeling, as we internalize the fact that tending to our loved one's needs, no matter who the person is or how personal the task, is just one more act of loving care.

2. Giving mom or dad a bath
People differ greatly in their acceptance of needed help. My mother-in-law, Alice, needed assistance while bathing. One would think, since we were quite close and of the same gender, that her allowing me to help her bathe wouldn't have been a huge issue. However, Alice grew up with great modesty about the human body, and she never got beyond that shyness. She emphatically did not want any family member helping her bathe. Since she couldn't shower or bathe safely by herself, we found that hiring an in-home agency to send a caregiver for this task worked fairly well. While Alice didn't like them, either, she would allow the caregivers to do what they must. I believe that was because it seemed more "medical," therefore impersonal.

My heart tells me that most of us feel embarrassment because we care about the dignity of our elder or other person we care for. One way to get by that is to remind ourselves that it's certainly more dignified for the person to be clean and smell fresh than be offensive to others. When they fight us, as with the bathing issues I faced, sometimes outside help is the answer. That isn't likely to work when it comes to toileting, so convincing the person who is fighting your help that their dignity is at risk if they don't allow some help may be the best approach to take.

3. Dining in a restaurant
Dignity is also an issue when taking an elder, or someone with disabilities, out to eat. Many people with Alzheimer's, Parkinson's or other disabilities, have a hard time getting food into their mouths, even with help. They may have trouble chewing or swallowing. Some caregivers may be concerned that behavior issues can make fellow diners uncomfortable.

The issue about whether to take someone in this condition into a restaurant brings mixed reactions from my readers. One reader has taken his wife, who suffers from Alzheimer's, to specific, non-formal restaurants, all through her disease. He uses a bib himself, just like his wife. He feeds her if necessary, wipes up spills and take care that she enjoys herself.

Another reader, who has advanced multiple sclerosis, is adamant that her daughter pick up food, if they want restaurant fare, and bring it home. She doesn't even like to eat in front of the family. Her daughter feeds her before family events, and then she visits with people while they eat.

In most cultures, eating is a social ritual. It's also quite personal, in some aspects. How – or if – to take people with disabilities that affect their ability to eat neatly and quietly out of the home to dine is an individual decision.

Some caregivers would feel embarrassed, either for themselves or their loved one, if there is a "scene" around their dining table. Others handle disruption with grace, even feeling that it is learning experience for those looking on. Each view has validity. My thoughts are that I'd try to figure out, by looking back on my family's patterns with their elders, what this person would have preferred if he or she could tell me. I've used that concept as a touchstone for many decisions involving my elders.

4. Going out in public
Eating aside, taking our loved ones with dementia, or other illnesses that affect their public behavior, out in public can be tricky.

People with Alzheimer's can benefit greatly from events that stimulate the artistic part of their brains, so art galleries and music events are often very beneficial for these folks. Researchers have shown that some people with dementia, particularly in the earlier stages, can look at a painting and see depth to the message that we "normal" brained people may miss.

The view from the opposite side is that, during some stages of Alzheimer's, people can feel anxious when taken outside of a known environment. Knowing your loved one, and how to help this person best enjoy life, is important. So is educating yourself about your loved one's disease. Your local Alzheimer's organization can be a huge help in learning about these matters.

If your feelings of embarrassment are more about yourself and how others see you, this is something to ponder. Most of us don't like to be stared at in judging ways, so you aren't alone. But consider a few things.

Most of the people staring at us as we take our loved one through a store or clinic are simply curious. They may feel sorry for us, which we don't like. But our reaction can be that they are judging us in a negative way. And, frankly, some people are. Being honest with ourselves about our feelings is good, even if we aren't proud of what we are thinking. Talking through our feelings with a trusted friend or spiritual advisor can help.

Professional counseling can help, too, through most of us don't have to take it that far. Put yourself in your loved one's place, if you can. Aim for the most social stimulation possible, without doing harm. Acknowledge to yourself that you don't like people judging you and/or your loved one, but that you can learn to accept this. Then do what you think is best. Get educated and then go with your gut, as they say. Sometimes that's all we can do.

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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25 Comments

Excellent article! I can say for me I am pro active about embarrassment and so called social mishaps. I grew up shy awkward and easily flustered, than, at some point I decided it is no big deal... Unless someone is injured or in pain, so what!? I spilled something, so what, you dribbled your food, so what!? The earth is not gonna split into and implode! Americans have become too too squeamish and perfectionist about things. Maybe the whole world is in a way. We do not like to admit we will make mistakes, mess up, look foolish, drop things, trip, lose face, become embarrassed. We seen to want to maintain a perfect facade of competence and composure at all times and deep down inside we all fear the same things; toilet tissue on the bottom of a shoe, period stain on white panties, food spilled in public, looking incapable of any little thing or major bodily functions, we feel chagrined, humiliated to not be perfect at all times and in all things. We lie to one another every time we deny we have failings, need help, are always in control. Face it, we will all get old, lose abilities, be injured and need assistance, make mistakes, do goofy stuff (yes, even outside of Junior High School) and then the real biggie; eventually die. As for me personally, I declared war on pointless humiliation and shame years ago. There is no shame is spilling food, needing help to walk, wetting one self, dropping things, shaking uncontrollably, or making a mistake! I don't feel a person should have to be humiliated just because something is out of their control and they "mess up". If I am out and I see some one trip, I don't laugh, if someone needs help getting to a door or out of a chair I help them, no biggie, if my grandmother or grandfather spilled something on themselves, I'd clean it up, I don't comment needlessly on it, I don't turn it into an ordeal or major event...on the level of important things, it is just not that important. People should be ashamed when they intentionally harm others not when they spill gravy on their pants.
Aging-Care has been wonderful in giving information in articles, sharing readers’ comments, providing information and much more and THIS article is one of the BEST for me, which is so applicable to my current situation. My husband’s Parkinson’s disease has progressed to where taking him out in public is an act only performed by a brave spouse – me – who must be very mindful of the situation into which I take him. Sometimes I misjudge and it turns out funny and other times it’s just embarrassing and I promise to not try it again. He is not a person easily embarrassed however as he was a very gallant gentleman in our early years together and would not appreciate making others uncomfortable now. With chewing and swallowing being very difficult (what goes down often doesn’t go all the way down and resurfaces to go down the bib) – in all consideration, WHEN we go out to a ‘normal’ restaurant, which has become rare, I ask the hostess to seat us so he is not facing others. We went to a fun Pizza Hut for Christmas Eve. It was cold, snowy, and families were enjoying the restaurant. We sat so that few were near us and our booth faced a ‘not-busy’ salad bar. I thought all was fine and we were not noticeable. As we were finishing (my husband can turn a one hour meal into closing time) – a young man momentarily walked toward us away from his lovely wife and small children and told us that ‘our meal had been taken care of’. Rather than feel embarrassed, I was very thankful and appreciative and hope I am able to pass such caring on to others. This is not the first time something like this has happened for us. I told my husband the truth – it’s because he’s such a good looking man!
My Mom kicked me in the head with her knee, by accident, while I was helping her change her pants and Depends. We both laughed so hard. Praise God for a sense of humor during embarrassing times.