The first call of the day from your mom you can handle.
“Oh, hi, Mom. Yes, it’s a very pretty day. Maybe you should walk down the hall to see Marian?” You chat awhile and then say, “I love you, too. Bye.”
Five minutes pass. You answer the ringing phone again.
“Hey, Mom. Yes, it is 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. It’s okay; you just forgot. Love you. Bye.”
Six more minutes go by and the phone rings yet again. You check the caller ID and decide to ignore it. The rule of three has kicked in. You know Mom is alright because you’ve already spoken (twice). She has heard your voice. It’s okay to ignore the call, and yet you still feel guilty.
Why Do Elderly Parents Make Us Feel Guilty?
Get used to it—the guilt, I mean. The incessant phone call thing was just one of the many games I had to play as a dementia caregiver. When my mother would ring the first time, I’d answer, chat and see how she was doing. The second time, I’d gently try to let her know that she had just called. The third time, well, sometimes it just seemed better for me to ignore it. I knew she would be embarrassed (or think I was lying, depending on the day) if I told her she’d called me three times within the past 15 minutes. It seemed kinder to just not answer the phone and let her forget that she called.
It is so hard to see our parents get older. As they become more physically and/or cognitively challenged, it’s only natural to wish we could take away their struggles. We can offer love and support. We can do our best to anticipate and meet their needs. But, we can’t take away the discomfort and indignities that come with aging. Family caregivers tend to be empathetic individuals, so seeing those we love decline pains us deeply. We feel we should do something—anything—to help, but our powerlessness results in unearned guilt.
Guilt does serve a purpose in life. If we are mean, then we should feel guilty. If we owe someone an apology, then we should be mature enough to extend one. But guilt is a complicated emotion. As family caregivers, we take on the expectations of our culture, our religion, our family. And then we take on the expectations of our toughest critic: ourselves. Negative thinking can easily become a damaging habit for stressed caregivers. Many of us wind up emotionally overwhelmed and feeling that we’re 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.
Much of this guilt is self-imposed, but there are instances where care recipients use their caregivers’ compassion to their advantage. Elderly parents are especially notorious for sending their adult children on guilt trips to get what they want when and how they want it. Although it comes from external sources, this is still a type of undeserved guilt that must be overcome. It, too, can run family caregivers down, contributing to feelings of anxiety, depression and burn out. In these cases, setting boundaries is crucial for a caregiver’s well-being.
Failing to prioritize self-care is already a widespread problem for family caregivers—even those who don’t have issues with irrational guilt. On the rare occasion that we put our own needs before others’, I think we can all admit that at least a hint of guilt creeps in. Some even feel downright selfish for taking a break from providing care. There is so much else that we could be doing for others, yet here we are taking a few moments for ourselves.
Again, get used to it. These feelings are normal and nearly universal for family caregivers. It’s rare that you’ll be able to make everyone happy. You have to remember that you, too, are part of the equation. Your physical and emotional health matter. What isn’t normal is letting this undeserved guilt drive you to the point of caregiver burn out.
Stop being so hard on yourself. Join an in-person or online support group and talk with other caregivers. You’ll hear similar stories, recognize familiar struggles and gain valuable insight on your own situation. You are not indifferent to your parent’s feelings or needs. This role is incredibly difficult. You just need a break from both the real and perceived pressures of caregiving.
Caregiver Guilt and Regret Often Go Hand-in-Hand
Unfortunately, there are things that linger after a loved one’s death that can cause guilt as well—or perhaps just regret. Sometimes the two are indistinguishable for family caregivers.
I remember a time when I wrote my grandma, who lived 200 miles away, a letter once a week. She told me once how much those letters meant to her. But then I went through a serious personal crisis and her regular supply of letters from me dried up. Looking back, I feel as if this happened right after she acknowledged how much she treasured our correspondence, but it was more likely a month or two later. Eventually, I resumed writing to her, but I had moved several states away and she had already declined significantly by then. I wasn’t even there when she died. I still feel guilty 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 learned more about the dying process, I’ve found myself feeling guilty. I feel that I was less than perfect in how I handled their deaths.
Reflecting on our actions following a loss and even leading up to one is very normal. For many, regret and guilt play a part in the grieving process. Even if our loved ones are still alive, we can still internalize care decisions in an unhealthy way. We might feel guilty about even the smallest choices (self-care is an excellent example) because we fear we may regret them in a few hours, days, weeks, months, or even years later. Many dementia caregivers experience anticipatory grief, which can contribute to this pattern of thinking. The guilt and regret can become all-consuming, but only if we allow it to be.
How to Stop Feeling Guilty About Elderly Parents
Dealing with caregiver guilt is hard, but one simple question always helps me snap out of my “could’ve, would’ve, and should’ve” moments: Does my guilt help anyone? That is what I have to ask myself when I find my mind mulling over these old issues. 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, regardless of whether it’s over a decision you just made or something you said or did decades ago.
My solution? I choose to move forward. I tell people my stories; I tell them my successes and my failures. When I do that, it gives me hope. I try to have faith that doing so might cause one more person to hold their loved ones more, comb their hair, apply lotion to their skin—just spend more time touching than they would have. I hope that fellow caregivers will learn from my experiences and make the decision (free of guilt) to take some well-deserved time for themselves. If that happens, then I’ve made my amends. It’s all I can do. I can’t live my life over (nor do I want to).
I must forgive myself for all my imperfections. I am only human. I do my best with what I have at the moment, and that has to be good enough. Your best must be good enough for you and everyone else, too. Guilt erodes the soul. Be done with it.