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Multiple Roles: Handling the Guilt
By  Helen Hunter, ACSW, CMSW

There are many stresses and strains in the relationship between adult children and their aging parents, but one of the greatest of these stresses is the daily responsibility of caregiving. Providing hands-on care, food, shelter, clothing, transportation and companionship, as well as serving as financial manager and counsel has become commonplace for many adult children. Most also have a number of other responsibilities as well: to their spouses or significant other and to their own children, to their place of employment, to their social or church affiliated groups and to their friends. Individuals in this situation are seen as the “juggler,” trying to give equal time and consideration to all who want their time and attention, with little time and consideration left for their own health and welfare. As you can guess, this is not possible to do on a sustained basis before something starts to erode. In most cases, this “something” is the caregiver’s patience and own ability to cope with daily life. Is it any wonder that people in this “Sandwich Generation” cry out “What’s left for me?” and “How can I satisfy everybody?” The answer is - YOU CAN’T!  Superman and Superwoman only live in the comics!

There are many feelings and emotions that stem from this constant stress and strain of serving as the main caregiver. These include: frustration, anger, resentment, inadequacy and guilt. Why are adult children full of these feelings, particularly guilt? They often ask the following questions:

What else can I do to keep Mom or Dad comfortable?

Am I doing the right thing - have I explored all the options available?
They took care of me, why can’t I take care of them now when they need me the most?

Am I weak/incompetent/selfish?

If I don’t devote all my time and energy to Mom or Dad, will I be a bad “child”?

Adult children who feel guilt manifest this feeling by being complaining, offensive or accusatory, overprotective and either visit too often, or not often enough. They often also feel that unless they can return total care to their aging parent, they are not doing enough. This is especially true if there is only one adult child who has the full burden placed on them, or the one of the “bunch,” most often a daughter or the child who lives the closest geographically to the parent, who assumes the burden of care.

What can you do, then, to relieve the guilt that arises when you have all this demand on your time? When you realize that things are reaching a breaking point, arrange for a family meeting, which includes your aging parents, any siblings, your spouse or significant other and your children. You may want a professional involved to facilitate. Letting everyone know your feelings and that you are not able to juggle all the responsibilities anymore may help others to begin to share the load. It is important here to recognize that there are many instances where the main caregiver refuses to acknowledge that they can’t handle the load— they are too caught up in the daily grind that they don’t recognize the warning signals (extreme fatigue, lack of rest, irritability, frustration over lack of time, among others). A professional, outside perspective in this case would be beneficial to objectively point out the potential dangers of trying to do everything for everyone without a break.

Another tip is to negotiate from the start just exactly what the roles will be in terms of providing care for an older relative. Ask for and involve outside agency help in order to get occasional respite. If your parent is resistant in accepting outside help, demanding that you do the job, be FIRM in expressing that you have to look out for your own needs. If you don’t, you will eventually wear yourself down to the point where you are no longer effective as the main caregiver. You should not feel guilt in insisting that you take time out for yourself. Remember to follow through on your plan for getting respite relief—you deserve it! Also remember that the help you receive is competent and is able to handle emergency situations if they arise.

With older people living longer, many adult children are faced with the prospect of being a caregiver for a significant number of years. It is important for adult children to recognize that, in many cases, they will never satisfy or completely fulfill their obligations to their parents, no matter how hard they try. Many try to seek parental approval by giving up all their other needs and responsibilities to care for that parent before that parent dies. For many, there are unresolved issues between the two generations that adult children feel can be cured by becoming the main caregiver, to make up for the past. These unresolved issues will, eventually, get in the way of the adequate provision of care on a long-term basis. Recognize that fact, with the help of a professional or through a support group, and come to terms with this issue with your parent. Letting others provide care for an older relative without feeling guilty can be a starting point in the new relationship between the two of you and can be the saving grace in keeping your own life in balance.  



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