“You’re such an amazing person—I could never do what you do! I admire you so much.”
As a family caregiver, you might hear comments like this from time to time. You might appreciate the compliment and some well-earned recognition of all the challenging work you do for your loved one. Other times, you might be profoundly relieved that no one can read your mind and discover the less-than-admirable thoughts you often have about your role as a caregiver. Home health aides and private-duty nurses at Partners in Care, an affiliate of the Visiting Nurse Service of New York, frequently work with family members who are struggling to reconcile the value of the care they provide and the ways it has impacted their lives.
The longer your tenure as a caregiver, the more likely you are to experience emotions and thoughts that you’re reluctant to admit, even to yourself. While you manage medications and attend doctor’s appointments, your friends and relatives are having a great time with their own significant others and children. And, to be clear, it isn’t even necessarily the travel or the adventures you envy. They have conversations. They have dinner together. They have sex. They have careers. They go out and socialize.
You, on the other hand, spend your time with someone who might not know what day it is, who falls down constantly, who needs help with highly personal care tasks, or who has morphed into a mean and unpredictable stranger. It feels as if you’re always racing around handling emergencies and putting out fires. You’re lonely, you’re resentful, and you’re terrified that this chaos won’t end any time soon. Most of all, you’re overwhelmed with caregiver guilt when you realize there’s pretty much only one way it will end.
So, how do you get out of this vicious cycle of negative thoughts? Take a cue from the mantra that children learn during fire-safety lessons: stop, drop and roll.
How to Beat Resentment and Caregiver Guilt
- STOP: Interrupt yourself as soon as you begin thinking “If only” thoughts or asking yourself, “Why did this happen?” No matter how much you obsess over these things, you will never find a satisfactory answer to, “Why us?” If you can’t give your thoughts a rest, set a timer for five minutes to get all your worrying and deliberating out of your system. When the timer goes off, tell yourself you’re done fretting over the situation and then set the timer for another five minutes. Use this second session to quiet your mind and remind yourself of one positive thing in your life. If you can’t think of anything good, just focus on breathing deeply and calmly. Find the silver lining in something—anything—that is happening to help ground you. For example, even if it’s pouring rain, at least you won’t have to water the plants later.
- DROP: Be honest with yourself. Are you keeping up a façade? If so, drop it now. Pretending that you’re doing well and everything is okay will not get you the support you need from family and friends. Not to mention, putting on an act is exhausting work—something you don’t have the time or energy for. You’re in a situation where the person you’ve known for years is both wonderfully familiar and drastically different. You’re watching someone you love lose their independence. While caregiving can be rewarding in many ways, it is also a journey that is fraught with difficult care decisions and lots of intense emotions. It’s important for your mental and physical health that you maintain strong relationships with others. Part of this is being honest about what you are experiencing and how you are feeling. Drop unrealistic expectations of yourself, seek out respite care for your loved one, and take some me-time to reconnect with friends or family. If you can’t get out easily, pick up the phone or stay in contact via email, Skype or Facebook. Those who have meager support systems can turn to in-person or online support groups for encouragement, advice and a safe space to vent.
- ROLL: Your life will continue to change as your loved one’s condition evolves. Resilience and adaptability are key. In the same way that coaches teach athletes how to fall properly to avoid injury, you must consult elder care experts to develop the tools and find the resources to continue caregiving without damaging your mental or physical health. Seek out a therapist, mentors, a social worker, fellow caregivers or friends who have experience with situations like yours. These valuable connections can help you develop the flexibility you’ll need to roll with life’s punches and safeguard your health.
Intervening as soon as negative or anxious thoughts begin can prevent them from overwhelming you and affecting your attitude over the long term. Learn to practice mindfulness, get the support and respite you truly need, and embrace a realistic approach to caregiving that also prioritizes your well-being. If you’re having an increasingly difficult time managing repetitive negative thoughts, it can be a sign of caregiver burnout or even depression. Be sure to discuss how you’re feeling with your doctor or a mental health professional. They can assist in getting you the help you need to minimize your caregiver burden.