Feelings of guilt are common among dementia caregivers. Caring for someone with dementia or Alzheimer’s disease means you are doing a tough job, and one that comes with complex emotions, both positive and negative. Oftentimes, these negative emotions manifest as guilt.
Guilt by itself is a very powerful emotion that drains energy, causes stress and can make you feel stuck. While it can sneak in subtly here and there, over time, guilt can lead to long-term mental health implications, such as depression, that impact your ability to effectively provide care.
Here are some of the common ways guilt shows up in caregivers’ lives:
- Feeling guilty when you’re having fun.
- Feeling guilty when you leave the house.
- Feeling guilty that you can’t accomplish it all.
It’s important to remember that the things that make you feel guilty are often misconceptions or unrealistic expectations of yourself. While these feelings can lead you to believe you are failing, the opposite is true; caregivers are true heroes. Here are five common misconceptions surrounding guilt, and ways to combat them.
- Other caregivers are doing a better job: You might feel guilty because you have unrealistic expectations for yourself, based on what you see and hear from other caregivers. The truth is that you only know about a small part of their lives and it’s not realistic to compare your own situation with theirs. It’s very likely that they are experiencing the same struggles as you. Set yourself up for success and focus on your own life by setting up achievable goals and taking time for yourself.
- You treated an older adult poorly before a diagnosis: It’s always tempting to look back and regret your feelings of frustration or irritation surrounding someone’s behavior changes before they received a dementia diagnosis. Try to remember that you were doing the best you could and had no way to know the medical reasons for their behavior. You weren’t yet Dementia Aware but, now that you are, you can change things going forward.
- You have negative feelings about your older adult: Just because you care very much about the older adult you’re caring for doesn’t mean you won’t have moments that you don’t like them very much. Perhaps you have moments of guilt because you feel that you’re caring for them out of an obligation to do so. Or maybe you feel guilty when you get embarrassed by the things they do. Remind yourself that everyone has feelings like this at some time and, instead of trying to control these thoughts, accept them and work through them. Share your feelings with a trusted confidant or write them down in a private journal.
- You get angry or irritated and lose your temper: At one point or another, every caregiver has lost their temper when they become frustrated or exhausted. After you cool down from an outburst, it can be hard to forgive yourself. Try to remember that getting angry is a natural response when you’re pushed to the limit and dementia symptoms are flaring up. Instead of beating yourself up about it, start to recognize signs that you need a break before the next outburst happens and develop strategies to prevent them. For example, if you know that dinnertime is a very difficult time for you, take a few minutes to do an activity that relieves stress beforehand.
- You want time for yourself: You may have false beliefs that you should limit your non-caregiving activities to only the most essential activities, or that you shouldn’t be able to enjoy life if the person you’re caring for can’t. In reality, it’s important that you take time to recharge your batteries so that you can effectively care for them with energy, positivity and love. Taking care of yourself with regular breaks isn’t anything to feel guilty about.
For more strategies and tips for taking a loving approach to caregiving, read my book A Loving Approach to Dementia Care.