I was speaking to my friend, Robert, who I would describe as a “reluctant caregiver” and I was struck by the internal struggle he faces with his aging parents. It is clear there is a long history of conflict and hurt between him and his father. There isn’t much affection between them and his visits are born out of duty and obligation. Now, both of his parents need help and of his siblings, he is geographically the closest. Robert is having to take the lead and care for his parents and well, he is dragging his feet.
There is this misconception among family caregivers that they should have strong feelings of wanting to care and/or a sense of deep love and affection towards the person they are caring for.
I think it is safe to say that at one point or another, all family caregivers are reluctant caregivers. Caregivers often find themselves in their role due to distance, availability, obligation or what seems like a lack of choice. This often leads to feelings of frustration, resentfulness or being backed into a corner.
Robert is clearly stressed by his caregiver roll and the negative emotions he is experiencing. At one point in our conversation, he asks, “Do you think I am mean for feeling this way?”
This was the best advice I could give him:
You have every right to feel this way. Feelings matter and they are valid in every caregiving situation.
A healthier caregiver is the end goal. Feelings of anger, frustration, and bitterness are normal responses to a role that reluctant caregivers didn’t want in the first place. There typically isn’t the warm and fuzzy feelings that can lessen the toll caregiving can take. The key is figuring out how to shift from a place of negativity to acceptance of your position.
Make friends with reality. A reality check isn’t always welcome for most of us, however, for caregivers it is helpful to accept the caregiving role. You may not feel you have a choice, however, you can choose how you feel. More importantly is to take stock of how your feelings impact your behaviour and actions with the person you are caring for. How does anger affect the way you care? When you are frustrated by the person you are caring for, how does this affect the words you choose with them? Think about making a small shift in your behaviour and note how it affects how you feel and the way you provide care.
Find a way to vent. Know you aren’t alone in the way you feel about caregiving. Having said that, reluctant caregivers are also reluctant to talk about they really feel about their role. Find someone or a group where you can be honest about how you feel. Given that not all of us are comfortable talking about how we feel, find another way to vent, be it physical activity, tinkering in a workshop or studio, or even punching your pillow!
Wendy Johnstone is a gerontologist and is the founder of Keystone Eldercare Solutions. Her column runs regularly in the Comox Valley Record.