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Coping With Caregiver Guilt

Friday May 22, 2015

How humor and respite can help caregivers manage guilt.
Brenda Avadian

U.S. News & World Report - Caregiver guilt strikes from time to time, without regard for how utterly exhausted you feel. “Am I doing enough?” you wonder. GUILTY!

As conscientious human beings, our hearts go out to those we view as less fortunate. While doing all we can for a chronically ill person or one diagnosed with a terminal disease like dementia, we feel guilty for being able to go on living while our loved one suffers.

But where’s the common sense in choosing to hold onto guilt when it takes so much energy? Note the word choosing. It may seem unconscionable to suggest we choose to feel guilt, but it’s a learned habit like any other. We need to stop, yet it’s not so easy. 

The topic often comes up when I serve as a support group facilitator at conferences. After approaching it gently over the years, I’ve had a greater and lasting impact helping caregivers release some of their burdens with stereotypical humor.

“Guilt is only for those who are Catholic or Jewish. The rest of you are not permitted to feel guilt,” I’ll declare to attendees. For a moment, there’s typically a gaping void of silence as I pierce our politically correct world. Almost immediately, though, the vacuum fills with hearty laughter. (If you don’t laugh, it means you’re lucky to be guilt-free!) Any kind of humor can help address guilt. In fact, research suggests learning to laugh in the face of difficult situations releases serotonin, which makes us feel happier, lighter and more relaxed.  

Becoming Aware of Guilt

From a safe distance, feeling uplifted by humor, we’re able to recognize these feelings and can begin working to better cope with them. That’s important, since guilt can creep in quietly until you’re suddenly overwhelmed. Say, for example, you take an afternoon of respite for a little pampering with a well-deserved massage. Soon, though, the soothing feelings dissipate and once more, you feel tension. GUILTY!

Or say you helped your loved one move to a residential, assisted living center or even a nursing home. You feel relief from a significant source of stress after providing 24-hour a day care. But as you regain your energy, you may begin thinking about and missing him or her. “I can do this. I can care for him,” you say. Then the tsunami of guilt strikes, and you’re drowning in a sea of couldas, wouldas and shouldas.

Replacing Guilt With Something Constructive 

To weaken guilt’s stranglehold, caregivers need to fill the space with something to strengthen them as they approach exhaustion and burnout. Despite the overwhelming advice by professionals regarding self-care, including respite, the reality is, it takes time to plan. And this alone can become a source of stress.

Here’s my advice regarding respite: Start small. If you’re serious about taking a break, you’ll soon learn it takes almost three times to plan for the amount of time you want to be away. An afternoon off? Planning and preparation could take a day and a half. An extended weekend? It could take you a week to make all the arrangements while anticipating the contingencies. 

That’s why I started The Five-Minute Respite campaign. Five minutes can make a world of difference when your care recipient steps on your last nerve, as one nurse-caregiver put it. Take a deep breath. Go outside or call a fellow caregiver. If you do something you’ll regret, next thing you know, the courts get involved, and you’re scheduled for a state-mandated vacation. And here’s where humor comes in. No matter how bad it gets, it’s good to keep your sense of humor. Why? Watch my Five-Minute Respite video.

Once you plan for some time off, do something fun. It doesn’t have to be extraordinary. You can go shopping, grab a coffee, walk or sit quietly in a park and enjoy nature’s sights and sounds. Caregiver Louise Carey arranged daylong respites at home by hiring an in-home caretaker to look after her father-in-law, while she went into another room with a thermos of coffee and a bag lunch for the day.

Schedule periods of respite to relax and gain strength for guilt-free caregiving.