Coping with Caregiver Guilt

As caregivers thrust into the responsibilities of caring for a parent or aging loved one, the experience can make you feel a bit like a fish out of water. Not only can it be an isolating experience, but you can suddenly find yourself unsure of how to meet basic needs. Whether you’re managing a crisis or in it for the long haul, caregiving brings on a wide mixture of emotions including anxiety, intimacy, sadness, purpose, confusion, grief, anger, honor, exhaustion, nostalgia, etc. The barrage of emotion can be overwhelming, but there is one emotion in particular that can suck the energy out of caregivers: guilt.

In the online age, a million things are vying for our attention. We are jumping between the latest news, our careers, social commitments, raising children, etc. Between all the multitasking, it can feel difficult to be satisfied with our involvement with any one thing. Each day has an unfinished quality to it; there is always more to read, do, accomplish, say. When you add assisting and caring for an aging parent to the mix, people who are already stretched thin run the risk of living lives full of guilt. When we are with our family we feel guilty for not including mom, when we’re at work late, we feel guilty for not being with our families. It’s a vicious cycle that causes us to not be present in the moment and to unnecessarily beat up on ourselves.  

Understanding our guilt begins with understanding our expectations of ourselves. Our ideal vision of something is shaped by many things including our values, societal pressure, family and self-imposed expectations. Knowing what has made up an expectation is power, because we then have the ability to re-shape our expectations and ease up on ourselves. We all develop unspoken rules that we live our lives by, some big, some small. They might range from “Thou shalt always send thank you notes” to “Thou shalt not put your mother in a facility.”

Caregivers can have their own individualized forms of guilt, but there are often themes of guilt that we see again and again.  It is often guilt over:

  • Not doing enough for an aging loved one 
  • Wanting to be alone/ needing time away from people
  • Not keeping commitments to work or social friends 
  • Not spending enough time with family
  • Not caring for a parent yourself- choosing a facility or home care
  • Living far away from aging parents
  • Missing the person their loved one used to be
  • Not knowing how to help or what to do
  • Getting frustrated at a loved one’s developing dementia
  • Another sibling carrying the burden of the work

The list could continue, but this gives a pretty good picture of the weightiness of the topic. Family caregivers may be making their heavy burden even heavier by shouldering the extra weight of guilt. For this reason, we have to keep a close eye on unearned guilt as it creeps up. While it is inevitable that things will not always go as planned and will not always fit our ideal vision, we must be gracious with ourselves before we shoulder the full responsibility for a situation. Victor Frankl once said that, “When we can no longer change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.” Redefining what we expect of ourselves as caregivers may not change the situation, but it will lay the foundation for healthy boundaries and a more sustainable elder care experience. 

When experiencing a moment of guilt, here are a few important questions to ask yourself:

  • Is there anything that I can do differently than I’m doing?
  • Would taking different action cause an unhealthy environment for myself or family?
  • What is the expectation that I feel I am not meeting that is causing the guilt?
  • Is this expectation something that is of importance and priority to me in this moment?
  • Am I doing the best that I have with the resources available to me?
  • Am I spending energy on my priorities?
  • Am I aware of my limitations and allowing others to help?
  • What do I have control over?
  • What do I not have control over?
  • How will I respond?

Connect with the Experts

Caregivers will often feel guilt over not being able to provide care themselves, which can lead to a resistance to help. This cycle of emotion can be destructive to everyone involved. Being an exceptional caregiver to an aging parent can look like many different things. For some families, it might look like providing the hands on day-to-day care and for others it might look like doing the research to find solutions to an aging parent’s needs. Connecting with the experts and finding the right help is just as valuable of an act of service. At Sound Options, we come alongside family caregivers and help in a variety of ways. Whether it is a few hours of elder care coaching to get you pointed in the right direction, getting a Care Manager to help manage medications and complex situations, or in-home care to provide the daily assistance, you have options. Click or Call for details 800.628.7649 or

Published on April 11, 2014.