They say hindsight is 20/20. But things from the past that may seem “clear” to you now can still be distorted by difficult emotions—especially when it comes to something as impactful as caregiving. Now that you have some experience under your belt, imagine that you could go back in time. What would you say to your novice self about how to be a caregiver?
As a seasoned caregiver myself, I can choose to ruminate over my perceived failures, or I can choose to forgive myself for being imperfect and recognize that I did the best I could at the time. You have the same choice.
Much like an adult who realizes they have a “wounded child” living inside—a child who suffers from unearned guilt or low self-esteem because of life events—many adult caregivers are burdened with regrets and remorse from their caregiving years long after this role ends. They spend precious time thinking about how they should have understood someone’s needs better, could have been more patient or would have done any number of things better, if only they knew then what they know now.
The very people who take on caregiving roles are often the most sensitive to others’ needs. Caregivers take on responsibilities for others in an attempt to improve their health, happiness and well-being. But, let’s face it. Whatever we do as caregivers seems to be wrong in the eyes of some on-lookers. The critics are generally people without all of the facts and often people who could never do what we have done. Still, we are sensitive to their judgment.
We can certainly decide not to be bothered by this criticism. The problem is, we’re often unaware that we judge ourselves even more harshly and against much higher standards. This is particularly true in retrospect. The passage of time lends valuable perspective to life’s events, but we don’t always use this gift in the most constructive ways. Instead, we look back and beat ourselves up for slips (whether real or imagined) despite knowing that we were still learning the ropes, stressed out and/or spread too thin to do much better.
Countless members of the Caregiver Forum have expressed regrets and disappointment in how they handled aspects of their loved ones’ care. A common refrain is “I wish I had known/done/said…” or even “I wish I hadn’t…” However, in sharing these trials and tribulations, many are overlooking a few of their glaring successes as caregivers. Simply being here reading this article on AgingCare.com probably means you took to the internet one day in search of information on elder care and caregiver support. Educating yourself, researching your options and seeking out help are accomplishments that should be celebrated. These things are indicative of the type of caregiver you are/were and the quality of care you provide(d).
You accepted this role out of love (or possibly out of obligation), likely without the training or experience to cope with specific issues, so you made mistakes. Everyone makes mistakes. Move on.
Believe that if your loved one could be the person he or she was before they needed your care, you would be told, “job well done.”
Focus on precious moments rather than perceived mistakes. Reflect on tender times to remind yourself that you were fulfilling an important calling. Remember that you made a difference. If you need to, put those rewarding moments down on paper and read these notes whenever you find yourself nitpicking your care decisions and accomplishments as a family caregiver.
Understand that imperfection is human. Your best was—and still is—good enough despite what others may say and what you may tell yourself occasionally.
Whether your caregiving journey is long over or you’re a few weeks, months, or years into this role, please forgive the struggling caregiver inside of you. Grant yourself the same forgiveness and grace that you would extend to a dear friend who has faced these challenges. Give that novice caregiver a spiritual hug and a pass for being imperfect. If you do, you’ll leave room for your brain to focus on loving moments with the people you took care of.
Move on from self-imposed blame. Take pride in having stepped into the difficult role of being a caregiver and seeing it through to the best of your ability. What’s important is not what you did wrong along the way, but in the end, what you got right.
If it might assist you in working through your regrets and perceived shortcomings, consider helping other family caregivers who are new to this role. Relaying your experiences, sharing lessons you learned, and reflecting on the things you did poorly—and did well—can be immensely useful for those who are just starting out on this journey or deep in the trenches trying to make sense of it all. It can also be a rewarding and cathartic exercise for you.
So, with this new perspective, what would you say to your novice self about how to be a caregiver? What would you say to others who are new to caregiving?