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The Life Transition Blog

Managing the Emotions of Caregiving


The role of family caregiver is filled with emotions, both joyful and trying. Yet as anyone who has served in this role for a spouse, parent, or other family member or close friend knows, it is the negative emotions associated with caregiving that seem to have the biggest impact in the moment. When working with family caregivers, I often spend time helping them to work through this important “byproduct” of caregiving.

Family caregivers often tell me that they feel overwhelmed. When I ask them to explain this to me using other words, I typically hear things like, “I never feel like I’m on top of everything” or “If it’s not one thing it’s another” or “I have no time to myself”. If I ask these caregivers to label their emotions they will say things like “I’m scared that I won’t do the right thing (or enough)” or “I’m angry that my siblings have dumped this on me and don’t help”. Fear, anger, and feeling overwhelmed are the most common caregiving emotions I hear about from clients.

I’ve developed a method of helping these caregivers through a two-step process. The first step involves internalizing two very important things to stop doing. The second step requires the caregiver to answer a series of questions that can help her to start doing things that will make those caregiving emotions more manageable.

The first thing on the “stop doing” list is to stop trying to fix things. Unlike taking care of a young child who will, over time grow and learn to do things for himself, taking care of an older adult means accepting the reality that he will probably need more help in the future, not less. As the caregiver, your role is not to fix every new problem, but rather to make sure that your care recipient is safe, happy, and allowed to remain as independent as possible. Until you, as the caregiver, let go of the expectation that you can make everything the way it once was you will feel tremendous stress, wondering if you can ever do enough. The second thing on the “stop doing” list is making assumption or projecting your needs onto your caregiving recipient. Have you ever caught yourself saying something like, “if it were me, I’d….”? Or how about, “I can’t believe you would …”? In these situations, you are expecting your care recipient to have the same feelings and preferences as you do, but by the very nature of your roles, this is often not the case. While it might sound harsh to say it so bluntly, this really isn’t about you. The more you can put yourself in the shoes of your care recipient and the less you judge his or her decisions or preferences, the less stressed you will be.

The “start doing” side of the equation is based on some introspection on the part of the caregiver. I challenge caregivers to ask themselves the following questions:

What scares me about my role as a caregiver or my care recipient’s needs? What is the worst that can happen if my fears are true? What if the opposite were true? How can I plan ahead or prepare for the situations I fear most? Taking the time to examine what is underneath your caregiving an emotion is the first step to managing it. This is also the time when a caregiver support group can be helpful. There are “live” groups in the local community as well as numerous resources on the internet. You might prefer a group centered on a particular disease or condition or one sponsored by your church, synagogue, or community organization. What brings the group together is less important than the skill of the facilitator and the positive support that is shared. Sometimes it can also be helpful to work with a caregiver coach who is familiar with the issues faced by caregivers as well as with the resources available to you and your care recipient. It really is possible to be un-overwhelmed!
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