One question that is often asked on the Caregiver Forum is, “How do I deal with the reality of leaving behind the life I had to become the primary caregiver for my aging loved one?” The plain truth is that assuming the responsibility of caring for another person dramatically alters one’s life. This change can happen abruptly, or it can subtly creep in over time. Either way, most caregivers are eventually struck by the realization that their present situation is nothing like the past and nowhere near what they had envisioned for the future. So, how do we cope?

It may sound selfish to some, but, to those who dove into caregiving with full hearts and no planning, then ended up in a months- or even years-long commitment, this is a perfectly rational question. People put their lives on hold to care for those they love—an admirable gesture. But when “on hold” becomes the new norm, a mental adjustment must be made. This usually includes acknowledging and dealing with difficult emotions like resentment.

Adjusting to the New Normal

Most caregivers take on this new role out of love and with good intentions. They rarely stop to think, “Hmm, this could go on for years… I’d better take a step back and make some plans first.” We don’t pause to think about what we’re getting into or weigh our options. We don’t hash out whether we should keep working full time or move to part time or if we’ll have to wind up quitting altogether. We don’t immediately ponder the impact that this new role will have on our children, our spouse, our bottom line or our own happiness.

We may have reservations but still rush in simply because we know we’re needed. It’s up to us to help, so we do what we must in the moment. But those weeks, months and even years of just squeaking by can have lasting consequences on our relationships, savings, career, retirement, and physical and mental health. No matter what age you are when you begin caregiving, this role is going to change your life as you’ve known it and the plans you had for the future.

Handling Resentment Over Making Sacrifices for Someone Else’s Care

Most caregivers have some idea of how they intended to spend their lives. But thanks to medical advancements, aging parents are living longer than ever despite serious health conditions, such as dementia, Parkinson’s disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and heart failure. Their care falls to loved ones whose plans and expectations are upended. Resentment isn’t a pretty emotion, but it is nigh impossible to avoid as a caregiver. Furthermore, admitting those feelings to others will not likely bring pats on the back.

Caregivers are left wondering how to handle the fact that they resent being stuck in a situation that seems to leave them few choices. What are our moral obligations? What are we to do as we watch our aging parents or spouses linger on, not living a quality life but not dying either? As with so many things in the caregiving world, there’s no right answer for everyone. Each person, family, financial status and medical situation is different. However, there are always options and changes that can be made. They may not be easy or cheap or ideal, but they at least deserve some consideration.

If you start to feel even a twinge of resentment, it’s time to act. Here are some suggestions for common caregiver scenarios:

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  • If your parents live in their own home, hire in-home help and learn to get comfortable with the quality of care they are receiving so you can take some time off from caregiving. It may amount to a few hours every other day, a whole week or even a month—whatever meets both your needs and those of your parents.
  • If you and your care recipient live together, it is even more crucial for you to look for outside help so you can enjoy some time away from your responsibilities. Because it’s harder for you to completely remove yourself from your caregiving situation, respite should occur on a regular basis. Even a good friend, family member or neighbor may be able to provide respite care for a few hours here and there. Adult day care is an excellent option for getting seniors out of the house and freeing up some time for caregivers.
  • If you quit a paying job to provide care because you were under the impression it was temporary and then realized that it was, in-fact, a long-term arrangement, you’re not alone. However, you must regroup and take time to prioritize your future. Regardless of whether you miss your career, you’ve depleted your savings, or you’re worried about your Social Security and retirement, you need to formulate a plan. It’s possible you may still decide you want to stay the course, but you need to make that a conscious choice, so you don’t feel backed into a corner. Remember, you are not responsible for paying for a parent’s care. It can be difficult to find and obtain financial assistance, but there are resources out there like Medicaid, the VA and Area Agencies on Aging that can help your loved one cover care costs. This will enable you to get back to saving for and working towards your own future.
  • If you are running to an assisted living facility or nursing home constantly to check on your loved one, and they aren’t in dire health, try to take a step back. If you know they are receiving quality care where they’re living, then take advantage of that care. Sure, visits are something to look forward to, but they shouldn’t dominate your schedule. Explain to them that you must pull back some to minimize stress, focus better at work and spend time with your family. Set a less intense visiting plan and stick to it unless there is an emergency. Fewer visits doesn’t mean that you care less or stop advocating for them. It just means that you’re taking full advantage of the services that the facility is getting paid to provide.

If none of these scenarios resonate with you, ask yourself a few important questions to help you look at your caregiving objectively and spur you into action:

  • Is everything you are doing for you loved one necessary?
  • Are you trying to establish control over an uncontrollable situation?
  • Are you doing these things so that your loved one and/or outsiders will say, “What a wonderful child/spouse you are”?
  • Can some of what you do be delegated to other people?

Yes, some of these questions are hard. It’s not always easy to delve into the reasoning behind our actions and come away with honest answers that we’re comfortable with. Caregiving can easily turn into martyrdom, and that doesn’t benefit anyone.

If you are guilt-ridden or filled with resentment no matter what you do, see a counselor. Talk through what your daily life is doing to you. A mental health professional will help you sort out the necessary sacrifices from the obsessive caregiving gestures.

How to Lessen the Burden of Caring for an Aging Loved One

Our care recipients may whine and complain if our worlds don’t revolve around them, but are they really at risk without our undivided attention? If so, we need to look for a way to fix this that doesn’t fall solely on us.

Leave no stone unturned until you get some help. If you need to move your loved one into an assisted living facility or a nursing home, then do your homework and find the best option available. Research and vet in-home care providers and adult day care centers. If your loved one protests, assure them that you are dedicated to seeing they get the best possible care but that you can’t do it all alone. Given time, it’s likely that they will adjust. Often, once they see you won’t budge, they will accept the change and make the most of it.

The point is, you must find some balance in your life. If you go years being eaten up with resentment, your own health will suffer. Your abilities as an attentive, organized, compassionate and pleasant caregiver will deteriorate as well, so what’s the point in working yourself into the ground? It’s far better for you and your loved one to find some respite and balance. Maintaining your own physical and mental health throughout your caregiving journey will make it much easier for you to fall back into your old routine or create a whole new one once caregiving ends. That is what your loved one would want for you.