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Whenever I'm too busy to visit my mother at her nursing home, I feel guilty for neglecting her. "Cancel other family plans," I say to myself. "Then you can go see her and alleviate your guilt." But when I announce this to my wife, I suddenly feel guilty for disappointing her. She rightly points out that it is excessive guilt that compels me to see my mother so often. I then feel guilty about feeling so guilty.
Pretty neurotic, huh? I wish it weren't so. But guilt is an ever-present emotion for many family caregivers for a variety of reasons: Because of what we haven't done for our ailing loved ones. Because of what we did, which we think was inadequate. Because we still can function physically and cognitively in ways in which they are no longer capable. A little guilt along these lines probably makes us more sensitive and attentive. But too much of it torments us and saps all possible joy.
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And guilt usually is joined by other challenging emotions. Caregivers who are harshly self-critical — those who beat themselves up — are more prone to depression. Former caregivers of now-deceased loved ones grieve longer if they second-guess their previous caregiving. And guilt often leads to what I call reactive cycles: I feel guilty. I then feel angry for having been made to feel guilty. I then feel guilty for having felt angry. I then feel angry again for feeling guilty again. And so on.
How can we come to terms with guilt and still feel proud to be hard-working, well-meaning caregivers? Here are some ideas:
Don't aim for guilt-free caregiving. The feeling that we should do more and better for one another seems to be built into our species as a group survival mechanism. Guilt is part of who we are. So that discrepancy between what you think you should do and what you're willing and able to do may always cause some guilt. Let's accept that as a given, then, and work on tempering the feeling.