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How do I cope with caregiver guilt?

Hi Lesley,

My wife is caring for her 78 year old mother who’s fairly physically disabled after suffering a stroke 12 years ago (slight weakness down right side) and spinal arthritis. Her mobility isn’t great. I try to do my share but recently I’ve been working away from home a lot.

The stroke also damaged her speech and although good most days, it deteriorates badly under stress and fatigue. The text messages we receive from her are often really garbled.

She’s 19 stone due to inability to exercise and poor diet – food is pretty much her only enjoyment – which doesn’t help her mobility.

My wife suffers terribly from the guilt of having to do a lot of things – doctor, dentist and hospital appointments, shopping, house, garden, car, etc – but not wanting to have to do it sometimes.

My mother-in-law is like a mum to me but she’s wearing my wife down.

I’ve tried to get my wife to get some help, especially for the guilty feelings, but she seems too depressed to do anything about it.

Any suggestions please?

Thanks, A

Lesley says:

Hello ‘A’ and thanks for getting in touch.

Sadly, so much of what you say does reflect the experience of many carers but individual circumstances also vary and carers all face their own unique challenges.

It does sound like your wife is having a really hard time and feeling very down. Whether or not looking after her mother is now her ‘full time job’ she may feel that over the years she’s lost her own life and identity – and also the person who was once a mother to her.

Guilt is THE most common emotion carers feel. Ironically, those that do the most are often the ones feeling they are not doing enough. But eldercare can be relentless and your wife would have to be a saint not to feel resentful and frustrated some or even most of the time. And it must be hard for you too, trying to support her.

Time for you

First and foremost – how much help, support and ‘time off’ does your wife get? Statistically, carers are likely to end up suffering from ill health themselves. Ultimately she may end up being unable to care for her mother if she doesn’t look after herself.

If she hasn’t already done so, your wife should inform her GP that she is a carer so they’re aware of her situation and needs. Carers are entitled to a social services assessment for themselves, if wanted, to see if they need additional support. Your wife’s GP can also provide advice and information about her entitlements.

What about help from friends, family, neighbours, or paid carers if this is feasible? You yourself can also play an important role. It sounds like you have a good relationship with your mother-in-law. Can you take over for an hour, a day, a weekend?

Shared responsibilties

If you are away working, can you encourage your wife to enlist the help of others, to allow her to go and do something she enjoys on her own or with friends? Can you get someone to take on the caring role for an evening so you can take your wife out, recognise her for the great work she is doing – carers usually feel under-valued – and talk the situation through in a neutral setting. Or just have a night out together?

Women often feel like they should be looking after everyone else as well as taking care of everything in the home (men too when they are carers). Does your wife have to be responsible for the house, garden, car on top of everything else? Is there anyone else who can help with this?

You also said that her mother is ‘wearing her down’. Is this because of her need for care or is she perhaps making unreasonable demands or unwittingly venting her own frustrations on her daughter? If so, your wife needs to find ways to handle this. Of course, this is easier said than done and she may need some professional help to change how she reacts.

Talking about how you feel

I don’t know your full situation but there are nearly always some changes that can be made on both the practical and emotional levels. Does your wife know anyone else who is caring for an elderly parent? Sharing how she feels could help her to see that it’s OK not to be the perfect daughter/carer and that it’s only human to feel stressed out and resentful with so many unfulfilling and repetitive responsibilities.

The main thing I took from your message is that whilst the caring is hard work, it is made worse by the feelings of guilt and being worn down. Talking to someone outside of her situation could help your wife to accept that she’s doing the best she can.

So often I find that people do feel a great sense of relief once they start talking and have their feelings validated. Do you think you could persuade her to talk to me? If not, perhaps you could do so yourself? I do believe I can help you both find ways to improve the situation.

All best wishes from the team at When They Get Older and I’m sure everyone reading your question will understand and sympathise. Thank you for sharing the challenges you’re facing.

Dr Lesley Trenner is an Ageing Parent specialist with extensive qualifications and experience in life coaching. Lesley provides one-to-one help for people who are struggling to balance work and care, or cope with mid-life, family and career challenges. Sessions are available face-to-face (London) or on the phone. Email Lesley or call 07919 880 250 for a free introductory chat.

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