Written by Sarah Randolph; published in Better Senior Living, June 2018, pg. 15

Caregiving presents many challenges related to one’s physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being. A caregiver faces living on the ragged edge from lack of sleep and constant worry that come with being a caregiver. In addition, isolation and self-neglect are often part of the caregiving journey. If that weren’t enough, after giving day in and day out, many caregivers find themselves facing the toughest part of being a caregiver: guilt. Although it is a natural feeling for caregivers, it is important to consider whether guilt is ever a good thing.

As one of the most uncomfortable emotions, guilt can be useful to modify or improve behavior. It can alert us to the fact that some part of our caregiving that isn’t aligned with our personal principles. Feelings of guilt can be precursor to action. It often serves as a signal, that we are considering a change, even if only subconsciously. It may also be telling us that we will not be able to maintain this level of caregiving forever and that it is time to ask for help, hire in-home care, or investigate long-term care. One may feel guilt from even considering these changes, but it is important to pay attention to these signals that the time has come to address what may become a necessary reality.

While feelings of guilt can be useful at times, often they can become counter-productive and harmful. Guilt felt by caregivers can zap energy that is in short supply. Unaddressed feelings of guilt can breed resentment and reinforce anger about the caregiving situation. When left unresolved, guilt can become overwhelming and immobilizing. While many caregivers have an abundance of guilt, awareness can help to combat these natural feelings. Here are a few things to consider when facing feelings of guilt as a caregiver:

  1. Choose to accept negative feelings and realize they are part of the caregiving journey. As a caregiver, you may feel irritability, desperation, and exhaustion along with other negative emotions, including guilt. This is natural and normal.
  2. Caregivers often feel guilty about addressing their own needs. Treat your own physical health, as well as anxiety and depression, by seeing your doctor regularly. Make sure your doctor knows you are a caregiver. Having an individual dependent on you is stressful. Do not let their health needs overtake your own. If you aren’t healthy, their support system crumbles.
  3. Caregivers should allow the individuals they are caring for to participate in their own care, even if this means that certain tasks take much longer. With creativity and reasonable expectations, everyone who contributes to their own care will benefit from the resulting boost in self-esteem and confidence. Even small successes will make both of you feel more hopeful and empowered. You may be surprised at how powerful allowing your loved one to participate in care can be.
  4. Ask for outside help. Do not shoulder the entire burden. Call a church, service club, volunteer organization, or ask a neighbor, friend, or family member to give you a break. Do not worry about what other people think. If they have not yet been a caregiver, they will likely become one at some point. Even a 30-minute walk or nap will provide you respite and give you fresh eyes with which to see your loved one. A particularly appropriate saying comes from mindfulness practice: It is not selfish to refill your own cup so that you can pour into others. Self-care is not a luxury. It is essential.
  5. Find your peers. Caregiving for a dependent person is isolating, and often well-meaning family and friends cannot truly understand what you are enduring. Support groups are a worth a try even if you have never been to one. The act of being in a room with others who are traveling a similar journey can be renewing and uplifting. Surprising to many in support groups is when there are humor-filled moments and wry observations. Allowing yourself to laugh with others at the complexity and absurdity of life is okay, and you should not feel guilty about doing so.
  6. Breathe. When facing ongoing stress, we tense up without realizing it. Deep breathing can be done anytime, anywhere. Research shows deep breathing has immediate effects on your brain, heart, and immune system. Dr. Esther Sternberg, a physician specializing in stress, explains the relaxation response is controlled by the vagus nerve. “Think of a car throttling down the highway at 120 miles an hour. That’s the stress response, and the vagus nerve is the brake. When you are stressed, you have your foot on the gas, pedal to the floor. When you take slow, deep breaths, that is what is engaging the brake.”

Finally, remember that regardless of your caregIvIng circumstances, you are giving all you can and let that be enough. Put effort into banishing non-constructive guilt feelings and remember to give yourself grace. Don’t ignore feelings of guilt that may be a signal that it is time to seek more support, and don’t let natural emotions fester into something that is counter-productive or harmful.

Sarah Randolph is the Executive Director of Bridge Haven Assisted Living and Memory Care.