When a Caregiver’s Best Efforts Don’t Feel Like Enough

My neighbor George is not a daughter, but he’s certainly part of the daughterhood. Until a year ago, he spent most of his time as a caregiver to his parents in the home they shared.

Now, from my perspective, he was the best kind of son any parents could hope to have and he fully embodied the spirit of honoring your mother and father.

But from his perspective, he was constantly failing.

Once he relayed a story to me about how he was in the kitchen one night making dinner for his parents—both bed-bound in different rooms upstairs. As he was running the food trays up and down the stairs, as he did for every meal, his mother suddenly called out, “Come sit with me.”

So he sat with her for a little while. The problem was that there was no amount of sitting—short of staying there for the entire evening—that could have fully alleviated the boredom and loneliness she was likely feeling. It was an impossible situation, but only one of the many that he faced every day.

[5 Steps to Help Counter a Common Caregiving Side Effect: Guilt]

Daughters, sons, spouses and other family members face situations like this all the time… working hard, doing the economic equivalent of $500 billion worth of caregiving (that’s a lot of hard work, my friends) and yet feeling as if they’re never doing enough.

It’s human nature to “failure-ize” what we do and who we are—to take any accomplishment and identify how it could be better. But, there are some very good reasons that caring for aging parents puts you especially at risk for failure-izing.

First of all, there is your biologically and socially conditioned childhood desire to please your parents and make them happy. You don’t cast that off just because you’ve grown up, which is why it really stings when you aren’t meeting their needs.

The second problem is that your parents’ declining physical and mental ability is an unavoidable, and largely unfixable, problem. That’s not to say that the comfort George provided his mother didn’t make a huge difference, but it wasn’t going to fix the fundamental root of her anxiety, which was that she was nearing the end of her life.

And, finally—and it’s something we talk about a lot at daughterhood.org—there are a lot of larger systems (healthcare, workplace, economic) working against you that you have to wrestle with all the time.

Mix all of these things together in the same pot and you have a wicked “failure-ization” stew and the feeling that even your best efforts aren’t good enough.

The only antidote to this feeling is to address your own mindset and to begin to replace “failure-ization” with a new way of seeing things.

[16 Essential Websites for Every Caregiver]

Here are three effective ways to do that:

Acknowledge that the personal is universal. Caring for an aging parent creates a lot of situations that feel very personal. For example, when my friend Mary’s mom yelled at her for cleaning a bunch of junk out from underneath the dining room table, it made her cry…. even though she rarely ever cries. Just like when she was little, her tears were about being yelled at by her MOM—for doing something she thought was helping.

What Mary needs to realize is that she has not personally failed. She’s actually just experienced a very normal part of the adjustment process when parents and their adult children start to shift roles. It’s not a personal failing. It’s a normal part of this life phase.

The paradox here is that this very personal exchange—fraught with a complex collection of feelings and history—is 100% universal. Some version of this is happening in practically every family that is dealing with a frail older adult.

Put your contributions in perspective. If you fly to retrieve your difficult father from his home, and then host and care for him in your home for six weeks, should your response to this situation be pride in what you’ve done, or guilt because you couldn’t fly back with him (even though you’ve made sure that there are others ready and willing to help)?

The problem is many daughters focus on the one thing they can’t do; instead of the many, MANY things that they’ve done and will do in the future. So rather than feeling satisfied with their performance, they judge themselves as failures.

[Read Maria Shriver’s latest ‘I’ve Been Thinking’ essay]

It’s a simple matter of perspective. First, take a mental inventory of all that you have done. And, second, give yourself an internal high-five. If you can find a good friend to help you with this, great! The key here is learning to reassure yourself that your efforts are good enough.

Recognize that it’s okay to choose you. Or, in other words, it’s okay to set boundaries with your parent(s). In fact, it’s critical. When you bend your personal boundaries out of guilt, the price is high and the relief is very temporary. For example, you fly back across the country with your dad as he requested and then he wants you to stay two weeks. There will always, always be a point where you’ll have to say no. So say it when you want to say it, not after you’ve bent yourself into even more of a pretzel. Read This: 5 Lessons in Setting Boundaries that Every Caregiver Must Learn.

I was just at a Caring Across Generations conference, in a room filled with dedicated family and professional caregivers who had traveled at personal expense to contribute to a national movement to transform how we care in this country. I was blown away by these folks and their dedication and intelligence. And several times, I heard the same thing: “I feel guilty for being here.”

I wanted to jump up and down and yell, “It’s okay to choose YOU sometimes.”

But the truth is, It’s more than okay. It’s essential.

 


{Image credit: Picjumbo}

 

About the Author

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Anne Tumlinson has dedicated her career to improving how America cares for its frailest, most vulnerable older adults. She founded www.daughterhood.org in order to help women get smart about their aging parents. Anne lives in Washington, D.C. with her two children and geriatric canine, Maggie. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

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