I have a question for you, and the only person you owe an honest answer is yourself.
As a caregiver, do you take it upon yourself to fix everything that is wrong with your care recipient?
I, too, suffered from the “fix-it mentality” while caregiving and understand how easy it is to fall into that habit. When we become family caregivers, we don’t get much of a chance to wrap our heads around what exactly our new role is. We charge on full steam ahead, simply trying our best to improve our aging loved one’s health and doing everything we can to make them as comfortable and content as possible. But when we get into that never-ending loop of fix, fix, fix, our efforts can actually backfire.
The truth is that we aren’t really fixing anything with all this effort. If we do put something right, it usually doesn’t stay that way for long. It’s only a matter of time before we get frustrated and exhausted. Who wouldn’t lose steam after repeatedly throwing themselves at a problem and seeing few or no results? This is when burnout strikes. When you invest so much of yourself in something that truly has no solution, you very quickly lose control of your own life.
Why Do I Feel the Need to Fix Everything?
Caregiving is funny that way. When we begin this journey, it all seems so altruistic and loving. We feel needed and valued, but, in time, something happens that changes all of this. A sort of mutual dissatisfaction takes root with caregivers and care recipients alike. We come in, take over someone’s life and try to fix what we perceive to be “wrong.”
Fixer syndrome is common among compassionate people who mean well, but finding a potential problem at every turn and committing oneself to being the solution for each one is an unhealthy way of approaching life, relationships and responsibilities like caregiving.
Many different factors can drive the desire to right all these perceived wrongs. Individuals with a history of abuse may consider themselves damaged and project their own need for repair onto others. Someone with low self-esteem may view caregiving as an opportunity to demonstrate their worth and feel needed—especially if their care recipient has never expressed feelings of approval, love or gratitude in the past. (Narcissistic parents commonly exploit the fear, obligation and guilt they’ve instilled in adult children who are providing their care.) Others may have controlling personality traits that stem from behavior learned in a dysfunctional relationship/environment and/or unhealthy methods of coping with anxiety. Sometimes striving for perfection while caregiving truly is the result of empathy and love, but the boundaries between what is and isn’t healthy can still get blurry.
While your intentions may be good, this endless quest for solutions will only keep you chasing your tail. Most seniors who require assistance aren’t capable of making a full recovery, even with their family members’ total devotion. For example, dementia can’t be “fixed.” At a certain point, there is little that can be done about severe arthritis pain. Many seniors begin eating less as they get older and frailer. These are common things that we caregivers wish to remedy for our loved ones, but driving ourselves into the ground to find solutions is not a sustainable approach to caregiving.
Sadly, one thing holds true in every elder care situation: despite our best efforts, age and illness always have the upper hand. Denial often plays a big role in our compulsion to fix everything, whether we're aware of it or not. One of the most painful realizations for a family caregiver is that there is no fixing what a loved one is going through. This in no way diminishes the care you provide, but it can be an upsetting truth for many fixers to accept. With this realization also comes the understanding that caregiving is likely to be a longer, more challenging commitment than we initially anticipated. The result is feelings of powerlessness, increased stress levels, anxiety and depression—hallmarks of caregiver burnout.
Fixer Syndrome Affects Seniors, Too
Our fixation on fixing doesn’t just harm us, either. When we swoop in to help an elder improve their health, clean their home, eat nutritious food, manage their finances and get to appointments, we often do so without realizing that we’ve effectively taken over their life. Again, all these things can have a beneficial impact on our care recipients, but it does come at a cost: their independence and, at times, their dignity.
I’ve coached enough family caregivers over the years to know that this is what happens. Eventually, “thank you” is no longer part of the dialogue. Your loved one may have gotten used to you handling everything for them and they may even harbor some resentment over their sudden loss of autonomy. Some seniors even lash out and become cantankerous because they feel a complete lack of control over their own lives. Many also tire of trying our “solution du jour” for whatever may be ailing them. They may begrudgingly oblige us or begin completely refusing our help. Of course, their apathy, resistance and lack of appreciation only serve to deepen our feelings of hopelessness and burnout.
How to Avoid the Fix-It Trap and Caregiver Burnout
This was never your intention, but this cycle is a trap that many caregivers fall into. If you can learn to control your need to fix things and become an advocate for your loved one instead, your role will be much easier to manage. Their behavior will likely become easier to cope with as well.
Just let go. Stop striving for perfection and searching for permanent solutions. Resolve to be the very best you can be. Know that the assistance you are providing is enough. Understand that it is appreciated even if the person you are caring for never says thank you.
Take a step back and redefine your role as a family caregiver. Your job is not to fix what’s wrong or direct your care recipient’s life for them. Your job is to support them, listen to their goals and concerns, and work together to find ways of improving their quality of life. If the time comes when they are no longer capable of participating in daily tasks and decisions, then you’ll need to take a more active role in their care. The fundamental challenges of caregiving are handling these tasks while preserving your loved one’s dignity and being realistic about your abilities and your limits.
Trust in yourself. Accept that you are good enough and that what you are doing has true value. You can’t fix someone’s chronic illness or be responsible for another person’s happiness. Get out of the fix-it mentality and embrace the “I’m enough” state of mind. Vow to do what you can today and let the rest fall away.