Never robbed a bank, never stole a car, and — as far as I know — I never killed anything bigger than a mouse. But ever since my mom got dementia, my personal cup of guilt runneth over. What is it about the caregiver role that raises our sense of guilt to mammoth proportions?
Last week I had to complete about 70 hours of work in five days while the summer temperature rose from 100 degrees on Tuesday to 105 on Wednesday. These factors combined to reduce quality time with my mom to zero. Although I managed to keep many matters under control — paid bills on time, finished the work — guilt circled me like a buzzard because I was not emotionally available to my Mom.
Comments from so many caregivers show that guilt is something we all struggle with as we strive to give better care to our loved ones. There are few things more debilitating than this constant sense that we haven’t done enough or don’t know what’s right. I try to put guilt in its place by recognizing it as a constant companion to the caregiving process. This burdensome emotion can be cut down to size when you consider some of its components. Tentacles of the guilt octopus include:
- Survivor guilt — we still have happy thoughts, sensations, and connections with others that enhance our quality of life; it’s hard to take pleasure in these things when dementia has stolen them from our loved one
- If the loved one is a parent, caregivers must bear witness to the disappearance of someone who provided them with the gift of life — it can feel like an undeserved gift when their suffering escalates; spouses also feel guilt from experiencing happiness when their life partner can no longer share it
- Guilt phrases seem to echo among caregivers: Have I helped enough? Did I make things worse? Was there a remedy, a practice, or a treatment that could have helped them more? Everyone has their limits. You can keep looking for resources, but you shouldn’t impair your own health by trying to do too much.
- There is also the guilt we feel when we are stressed beyond our limits and lose our temper with someone who is unable to control their difficult behavior. We all wish we could behave our best when things go wrong, but a saintly degree of patience is probably not within our grasp. NOTE: there are only 10 thousand beatified saints, but there are 15 MILLION dementia caregivers! Don’t expect too much of yourself. If your lose your patience in a way that startles you, it may be a sign that it’s time for a break. Take that break!
Guilt is one of those pesky irritants that won’t go away unless you deal with it. If you fail to acknowledge its impact on your actions, it can push you into making bad decisions. Once you confront your feelings of guilt, you are better able to make choices that can defuse the situation. You will deplete your inner reserves for helping your loved one if you deny yourself happiness or the support of others. Certain medicines have proven to reduce symptoms of guilt. Try a healthy dose of honesty taken with a large glass of forgiveness.