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Caregiving & Relationships: Coping with Guilt

Caregiving & Relationships: Coping with Guilt

As we move through our series on Caregiving & Relationships, we are learning ways to strengthen and maintain positive relationships. We’re exploring:

The value of training for family caregivers
How to set boundaries for yourself as a caregiver
Learning to know when it’s time to hire a professional caregiver

This week, social worker Robyn Arab takes on the topic of guilt. Oxford Dictionary defines guilt as “a feeling of having committed wrong or failed in an obligation.” No one wants to feel this way. But in a caregiving environment, guilt can impact you and those around you.

Guilt is a common feeling connected with caregiving. It can propel you to be the best you can be or it can immobilize you. My guess is many of you are thinking “it has immobilized me”. As a caregiver myself, I struggle with guilt more often than I like to admit. Guilt is normal. You experience guilt for not spending enough time with your loved one, and not enough time with your own family. For having negative feelings.The thoughts of wanting it to be over and having your own life back. For resenting your caregiver role.

Family dynamics can also play a huge part of a caregiver’s guilt. Your relationship with your loved one may not have been pleasant and now you are responsible for their care. It is hard to let some of those feelings and memories go. Plus, we all have our roles in the family and those roles do not change during caregiving. Thus, the guilt of not doing enough to help is always present. The guilt of resentment of having to do more than someone else is quite common. Guilt can be fueled by the demands of the role, the expectations of others and our expectations of ourselves. We need, though, to find ways to move through the guilt to lessen its burden.

Where Does Guilt Come From?

“One way for caregivers to handle guilt is to accept that having negatives feelings about caregiving is normal,” says Barry J. Jacobs, psychologist and author of The Emotional Survival Guide for Caregivers. “You love the person you’re caring for, but hate the caregiving. There is nothing bad or wrong   about feeling what you are feeling. But to transform negative feelings, we first must acknowledge them.”

It’s important to understand where the guilt is coming from. Knowing what is causing your feelings can be freeing in and of itself.  Consider putting your thoughts into words. This may help give you a new perspective on your guilt.

Easing the Guilt

Seek outside help. Talk with a dear friend who is willing to listen to your feelings. Join a support group. Hearing others discuss their caregiving journey and their feelings can make you feel less lonely and understood. You can also learn from your peers regarding a different way to view your situation and ways to make it less of a burden.

Making promises.  Oh, the families I have worked with that made the promise of “I will never take you out of our home.” The reality is that it is not always safe or healthy for someone to remain in their home. But they hang on to the promises made. Rethink about how you word your promises, try, “I will do my best to provide you with the best care for your condition.” Which is most certainly what you will do, but now without the burden of guilt.

Forgive yourself.  Not one of us is perfect, and certainly not in a new role of a caregiver that you don’t know what to expect. We all make mistakes, we are tired, lonely, frustrated and uncertain.  You can’t plan for every situation or every challenge. You want to believe you can do it all, but you can’t, so forgive yourself and move on. Accept it as a life lesson and do better next time.

Take the time to care for you. You can’t be an effective caregiver if you don’t care for our own needs. Take a walk. Sit quietly, read a book, or have lunch with a friend. When you step back from a situation you can often see everything a bit clearer. Provide some respite care for your loved one, this can be another family member, or through an agency. Again, this proves that you are keeping your promise to provide the best possible care to your loved one. Caring for you.

As Angela Lunde of the Mayo Clinic says, “There is not a need for a perfect caregiver. Only a caregiver who cares.”


The Emotional Survival Guide for Caregivers by Barry J. Jacobs

National Institute on Aging

Passages in Caregiving by Gail Sheehy


Robyn Arab, BSW, CMC. Robyn works as a Social Worker with the Resource Center on Aging at Harpeth Hills Church of Christ. She is involved in direct family care, education and community outreach. Her passion is to work with families during their caregiving journey. She is a member of the Aging Life Care Association for Care Managers.