Caring for an aging relative involves physical,
psychological, emotional and financial demands. It can be
particularly challenging when the person has heavy hands-on
needs, a difficult personality or mental impairment.
Caregivers may experience a variety of distressing emotions
along the way. The most common ones are as follows.
Guilt - because, unlike their relative, they enjoy good
health; they haven't, until now, been significantly involved
in their relative's life; they have mixed feelings about
being a caregiver; they sometimes lose patience with their
relative; they made a promise that they would never place
their relative in long-term care and they're not sure if they
can keep it.
Resentment - because they have had to make sacrifices, such
as giving up a job or leisure pursuits or letting other
relationships slip; their relative has treated them badly in
the past; their relative is demanding and critical and they
don't feel appreciated; family members aren't pitching in;
family members are critical of their care provision.
Frustration - due to the helplessness of being unable to
reverse their relative's illness; personality differences
between them and their relative; having to contend with
"nuisance" behaviors, such as repetitive questioning and
rummaging; being unable to reason with their cognitively
Anxiety and fear - stemming from safety concerns, such as
falls or, if their relative has dementia, household
accidents, wandering away from home or physical aggression;
concerns about what the future holds in terms of their
relative's disease progression and care needs and their own
physical and mental health.
Loneliness - arising from social isolation; feeling no one
understands what they are going through; having to do things
alone that they used to do with their relative; being unable
to relate to their relative in the usual ways due to changes
in his cognition.
Sadness - because their relative is gradually losing his
abilities and perhaps also his personality; joint plans for
the future must go unrealized; they can't imagine life
without their relative.
Anger - that their relative is ill or disabled; he is overly
dependent; he refuses recommended equipment or community
supports. Feelings of anger may be directed toward God, their
relative, family members or health care providers, or may be
generalized. Caregivers may also be angry at themselves for
taking on the caregiving role or not being more assertive
with their relative, family members or health care
While a certain degree of stress is inevitable, when left
unchecked it can lead to burnout. Physical warning signs
include fatigue, memory problems, sleep difficulties,
significant weight loss or gain, frequent illness and
development of chronic health problems.
Some emotional red flags are frequent crying, frequent
irritation by small annoyances, difficulty controlling one's
temper and feeling overwhelmed, inadequate or hopeless.
In severe cases, burnout can lead to abuse of the care
receiver. This signals the need for immediate help.
If you are a caregiver, read on for some strategies to help
keep stress manageable.
Look after your health: eat nutritious meals, get adequate
rest, exercise and schedule regular medical checkups.
Do something to give yourself a daily break - perhaps quietly
enjoying a cup of tea, reading something uplifting, writing
in a journal or listening to music.
Stay connected to your friends, your parish community and
other supportive groups.
Focus on your relative's abilities, not disabilities, and the
things you can still do together.
Acknowledge your relative's right to make decisions you
disagree with (provided he is mentally capable).
Let go of past grievances. Seek counseling if necessary to
help you move forward in your relationship with your
Don't promise your relative you will never place him in
long-term care because you don't know what the future holds.
Take things one day at a time. Be extra good to yourself on
Remind yourself that you are doing your best and are only
human. Give yourself permission to feel all emotions that
Join a caregiver support group in the community or on the
Accept offers of help. Ask other family members to share the
load and be specific about what you need.
Find out from your local office on aging about community
support services and take full advantage of them.
Petsche is a clinical social worker and a freelance writer
specializing in family life and eldercare issues.