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How Caregiving Can Liberate Caregivers From Past Trauma

Learn ways to face the challenges with dignity and resilience

spinner image mother and daughter in a disagreement
SDI Productions / Getty Images

Imagine two 56-year-old women who are the caregivers for their mothers with moderate dementia. After moving into their mothers’ homes, they do essentially the same caregiving tasks, including managing medications, making appointments and running the household. They have been caregivers for the same number of years and have the same amount of support from siblings and other family members. But while one is stressed and sad, grieving her mother’s slow decline and wondering when it will all be over, the other is overwhelmed, consumed with anger and guilt, and finding each day practically unbearable.

Why are they reacting so differently to similar caregiving circumstances? Perhaps one daughter is willing to use available supports, such as home health aides and adult day programs, and the other isn’t. Perhaps one was born with greater patience and resilience. The most likely explanation, though, lies in their backgrounds. The stressed daughter has a history of ultimately overcoming life’s various challenges. She is confident she can cope. The overwhelmed daughter has a traumatic history that has made her vulnerable to feeling completely helpless when challenged. She feels ashamed she will always struggle to cope.

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Past trauma most commonly complicates caregiving when caregivers previously experienced verbal, physical or sexual abuse at the hands of those they are caring for now. Those caregivers typically feel trapped doing what is expected of them while being used once again by the people who hurt them earlier in their lives.

But being traumatized by anyone at any point in life can leave adult children with feelings of helplessness, a lack of emotional safety, and the sense they are being mistreated, which are heightened by the demands, necessary self-sacrifices and, often, thanklessness of caregiving. Mental health professionals would say that becoming a caregiver triggers their past emotions and fears.

How can family caregivers with trauma histories separate past and present experiences and make caregiving more bearable — even therapeutic? Here are some ideas:

Remember your past…

Sometimes caregivers with trauma histories try to power through caregiving by pushing away their memories of having been mistreated by others. They then harshly reprimand themselves when old feelings of helplessness and resentment arise during caregiving anyway. Instead, it would be better for them to understand how past trauma has sensitized them to feeling taken advantage of. Armed with that understanding, they can better monitor their feelings and judge whether they are overreacting to the stressors of caregiving.

…but don’t be captive to it

Traumatic experience often changes self-identity for years afterward, sapping confidence and increasing a sense of personal vulnerability. Consequently, traumatized caregivers easily fall back into feeling like a victim, especially when their care receivers are miserable and unappreciative. But though they were helpless and victimized in the past, their caregiving situations are not an echo of their traumatic experiences. For one thing, these caregivers are older, wiser and generally more capable of standing up for themselves than when they were previously mistreated. It is important for them to realize they are no longer victims, trapped in the past. They are seasoned battlers who were tested and survived adversity before. They will meet the challenges of family caregiving and difficult care receivers too.

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Rewrite your story

The stories we tell ourselves about ourselves are often inaccurate and frequently undersell our capabilities. With each new challenge we face in life, we have another chance to write new narratives about who we are and what we can achieve. Caregivers with trauma histories should regard caregiving as an opportunity to face such a test with competence and integrity and, in the process, change how they view themselves from helpless to helpful and from vulnerable to hardy. The hope is that, when caregiving is finally over, they have gained new appreciation for their resilience in all spheres of their lives.

That is the lesson of the 2007 movie, The Savages, in which the great actors Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney play siblings caring for a father with dementia who had abandoned them earlier in their lives. Before they became his caregivers, they were troubled underachievers in their personal and professional lives. After caregiving, they are no longer limited by past neglect and trauma but have a new sense of their effectiveness in the world.

That’s the hope, too, for the 56-year-old daughter who is overwhelmed caring for her mother with dementia. Caregiving is difficult enough; she doesn’t need to experience it through the lens of her past trauma and feel trapped and helpless. She can hang tough, make a positive difference in her mother’s care, and emerge feeling good about herself and her future.

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