The problem with guilt is that sometimes we deserve it. And we know it. We can't cast the first stone. We make
mistakes, we hurt people, we’re lazy or arrogant or selfish and we
feel bad about that.
And rightly so.
Guilt—that pang of conscience, that ache of
remorse—can goad us into being better people. In the same way that a
body uses pain to signal an injury that needs attending, the
conscience can send a message of guilt that forces us to examine our
actions; guilt forces us to consider what we have done and what we
have failed to do.
All too frequently for a caregiver helping a
loved one, that guilt alarm never stops ringing. That
examination of conscience becomes perpetual. The feelings of
frustration and inadequacy and doubt never cease.
Sometimes it helps to realize that no matter
what you do—no matter how much or how little—the guilt is likely
to be there.
● You feel guilty because you don't
stop in and see Mom every day. Or you feel guilty because you're
spending too much time helping her and think you're neglecting your
spouse and kids.
● You feel guilty because you don't
live closer to Dad now that he needs extra help. Or you feel guilty
because you're the sibling who does live close by and you're resentful—even
jealous—that the others don't know the day-to-day hassles you're
● You feel guilty that Mom gets out of
bed and walks to the living room when your sister visits her but she
refuses to do that for you. You must be pampering her. Doing too much.
Or you feel guilty that she isn't doing well right now. You must be
pushing her too hard.
● You feel guilty that sometimes you
get mad at Dad because he won't listen to your suggestions. Or you
feel guilty that you're not more involved in helping him decide what
to do and helping him get it done.
● You feel guilty because Mom wasn't
very good at being a parent and you love her but sometimes you just
don't like her. Or you feel guilty because she was a super parent and
now she needs your help and you're not coming through for her the way
she did for you.
● You feel guilty because you've been a
pretty good son or daughter all your life but now, when Dad is really
relying on you, you're just not making it. Or you feel guilty because
you were pretty wild when you were younger and you didn't listen to
him and you know that hurt him.
● You feel guilty that you didn't go
into nursing or some other career that would really benefit Mom now.
Or you feel guilty that you can help all kinds of people at work—strangers,
really—but Mom just drives you up the wall.
● You feel guilty about feeling guilty
all the time. Or you feel guilty for giving yourself a break and not
● And maybe hardest of all, you feel
guilty because sometimes you imagine what a relief it will be when Dad
has died. And then you can't believe you feel this way.
As if your emotions aren't already stirred
up, overworked and muddled enough, your parents, siblings, spouse and
kids might not be blameless in this area either.
Mom or Dad knows what buttons to push—the
phrase, the gesture, the sigh, the stare—to make you feel guilty,
make you feel like a little kid.
Brothers and sisters likewise haven't
forgotten their sibling's emotional weak spots, and at times, they're
not above exploiting that knowledge.
A spouse can pour on guilt.
Children—even little ones—can be masters
at using guilt to manipulate their parents.
And society is not shy about showing its
disapproval. It would have you believe all the elderly are poor,
lonely, forgotten people because of an adult child's selfishness. And
likewise, it claims, placing a loved one in a nursing home—or even
considering such a move—is always cruel and immoral.
While your head may realize these things
aren't so, sometimes your heart seems to believe them.
The truth is, even after a parent dies, the
guilt can live on.
"I should have . . . ."
"I shouldn't have . . . ."
"Why did I . . . ?"
"Why didn't I . . . ?"
Guilt can easily become a constant companion
and if left unchecked, if allowed to race freely, it continuously
feeds the twin fires of exhaustion and anger.
These, then, are some strategies to help keep
guilt under control:
● Remember that you are a human being.
Like all humans, you are not perfect. Not a perfect spouse. Not a
perfect parent. Not a perfect son or daughter. Not perfect at work or
home or anywhere else. You will never be a perfect caregiver.
● Remember you don't have to do
everything for an aging parent. It is not required that you meet all
Dad's needs yourself. Give away some of that work. If there isn't
enough time to clean his house and make all his meals or if you can't
bring yourself to give Dad a bath, there are very competent, qualified
people who can do those things. People in social service jobs who
provide home and personal care.
Instead, use your time and energy to do those
things with him that you really want to do. The things that mean the
most to you and to him. The ones that will mean the most to you after
he is gone.
Who ever heard of a grieving child say,
"No, I didn't get to talk much to Dad near the end but I'm just
so thankful I kept his kitchen floor spotless"?
You are not in this alone. Look for formal
and informal support. Ask for help from siblings, fellow parishioners,
friends, neighbors, the community, and social service professionals.
● Remember you can set limits. As Mom's
health continues to fail, she's going to need more and more attention,
but that does not mean you will be able to continue to match that
need. Permit yourself to say, "I can't do that."
● Remember that sooner is better than
later. Don't wait for a crisis to arise before getting supplemental
help. Don't wait until you are at—or near— burnout.
● Remember that there are others who
are facing the same insurmountable challenges you are. There are
support groups available whose members will listen and understand.
● Finally, remember you must accept the
fact that no matter how much you do for an aging parent, no matter how
well you do it, a parent's health is going to deteriorate. A parent is
going to die. This isn't a reflection on you and the quality of care
you provide. It's a fact of human nature.
And it's not your fault.
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