When people talk about being caregivers, most often they are talking about taking care of their young children. However, there is a large segment of the population who are taking care of their aging parents or other family members either instead of or in addition to their own children. Although the needs and concerns of this group often resemble the needs of the young parents, in a lot of ways, their job is even harder.
When an adult child finds themselves taking care of an elderly parent, they learn about a world of concerns that they were often unfamiliar with. Unlikely in the case of a child, where the needed care is often relatively standard based on age, the needs of a parent vary greatly, in both the physical and emotional realm. As the adult child struggles to meet these demands, what they are often left with is guilt. They walk around with the self-deprecating thought that they are not doing enough. However, rarely do they stop to think about what “enough” would look like. If they did, they would likely realize that the source of the guilt is that they do not measure up to their ideal caregiver – the magical person who does it all and never complains. They do not generally acknowledge that this person does not exist. Thus, if people are trying to deal with the guilt they are experiencing, a good place to start would be to say to themselves, “My parent is well cared for, and their needs are met. Are there ways I can be more perfect – certainly – but if I am not perfect does not mean that I am doing a bad job.” Changing how one thinks does not actually change anything in the real world and does not alter the extensive assistance that the caregiver needs to provide for their parent, but it does help to lessen the guilt, and that alone makes the job easier.
Perhaps if caregivers reached out to others in similar situations, they would realize that the guilt they are experiencing is common and others may be able to normalize the experience. However, another problem that caregivers face is that when they try to talk to others about their hardships in order to get support, they are told that “They are lucky that their parent is alive, so they should not complain.” However, being grateful that your parent is alive does not make the day-to-day job of caring for them any easier. Also, just because you are struggling with managing their care, does not mean that you love your parent any less. Again, the only thing that you can change is to be honest with yourself and acknowledge that although part of loving your parent right now involves doing these tasks, it does not mean that you have to love the tasks themselves. Give yourself a chance to seek the support you need. If you find that you are getting responses similar to the one above, then find the support elsewhere because it does exist. On the other hand, some people do not ask for help because their care-giving role makes them seem like “saints,” and they do not want to jeopardize that image. In these situations the person needs to acknowledge what is more important to them: preserving the image or getting the help.
Speaking of help, caregivers often feel like this burden is only theirs to bear, and they do not use their resources. Frequently people say that they do not have any help because they “can’t afford it.” However, a large part of getting help is identifying what resources you do have and pairing them with the needs that you have. For instance, you may not be able to leave and go grocery shopping, but your friend is already at the store, have the friend pick up the milk since the milk doesn’t care who buys it. Also, places such as senior centers and religious institutions may offer help, so seek them out and ask. They may be able to offer help, but they do not know that you need it until you ask for it. Similarly, if there are distant relatives who voice the concern that they are unable to help out, perhaps they can send money since that allows for a greater amount of resources and allows them to contribute to the care remotely.
Another thing that often gets overlooked and glossed over for the sake of fitting into this role is that if the caregiver and the parent never had a positive or close relationship, it is unfair to assume that now because the parent needs help the nature of the relationship is changed. The adult child may step into that role out of a sense of responsibility or duty regardless, but the conflicts in this kind of situation may be even more frequent. In such a situation, it is important to say to yourself that it is likely that the conflict is only marginally related to the fact that the parent is now elderly. This conflict has been going on for years, and nothing has changed just because the parent is ill or needs assistance. People do not become perfect angels just because they become ill. In fact, the opposite is true. People who are ill and require extensive help may be more irritable and demanding than in the past making being their caregiving that much harder. Regardless of what the situation is, the caregiver needs to accept that caring for an elderly loved one is difficult, and they need to do what they can to get the support and assistance that they need.