How to Manage the Guilt that Arises when Caregiving for a Loved One

You’re just about to leave with the kids to attend the annual Thanksgiving parade and lighting of the tree ceremony. The weather is bad (rain with a good chance of snow) and you know it’s not a safe situation for your father who has mobility issues and dementia. As your respite caregiver arrives to watch over Dad while you’re away, he becomes visibly upset and wants to know why he is not included—instant guilt!

Guilt is one of the more common emotions felt by caregivers of aging parents and loved ones. Caregivers are often overburdened and torn between what they need to accomplish for their employer, their spouse, their family and their care recipient. What was not accomplished often leads to feelings of caregiver stress and guilt.

We feel badly about being angry that we are stressed, overwhelmed, over-worked, tired, etc. So then we feel guilty, which leads to anger, back to guilt and more anger—a never-ending circle. Guilt will also cause us not to take care of ourselves, perhaps because we believe we don’t deserve the self-care, which of course, will lead to anger, to guilt and back again.

Make Caregiver Stress Work For You

Chicken Soup for the Soul contributor, Dr. Vicki Rackner, states that “guilt often arises when there’s a mismatch between the day-to-day choices and the choices the ‘ideal you’ would have made.”

It’s important to learn to make your guilt work for you so that it doesn’t take over your life.

  • Acknowledge the feeling and identify the action that is causing you to have caregiver stress. Write it down if necessary. Ask yourself if there is an emotion rather than an action that is causing you to feel this way, i.e. anger or resentment. And it’s okay to be angry or resentful (you didn’t sign up for this) but perhaps the guilt over feeling caregiver stress will help you to take action to get other family members involved in the caregiving or to seek out respite care.
  • Look at the action and ask yourself “Am I doing the best that I can or did I make the best decision based on the knowledge I had at the time?” If yes, then let it go. It’s easy to say, harder to do, but with practice, you can do it.
  • If you feel that you could do better, that your actions weren’t in line with your values, then consider ways to improve the situation next time. This is one of the ways to make caregiver stress work for you.
  • Lastly, consider whether it is someone else’s opinion of your action that is prompting this guilt. For instance, if you live and work a long way from a parent or loved one and the rest of the family feels that you should re-arrange your life in order to move closer to your loved one, it may cause feelings of guilt. Again, try to evaluate the situation without emotion to determine the best outcome. Only you can know the answer. If you are doing the best that you can, then there’s no need for guilt.

Guilt is always going to be a part of caregiving, but it needn’t control all of your actions. Use it as a resource to help you make better choices for both yourself and your care recipient.

Written by senior caregiving expert Shelley Webb, RN.