The phone call
came on a misty Sunday morning. Maryís mother had fallen
at home and was hospitalized with severe injuries.
Mary and her sister were contacted by their elderly
father and a social worker and encouraged to return home
to help their aged parents make medical decisions,
straighten out financial and legal matters, and find
home care services. They were called to be caregivers
yet found themselves facing this role with great
apprehension and mixed emotions as they considered
stepping back into their parentsí lives. Memories of a
difficult childhood and stressful relationships had led
the family to years of estrangement. At this point, they
looked for guidance and answers to the dilemma they
this scenario is a common one. We have often assisted
caregivers with this dilemma and would like to offer
some insights to help those of you who may be facing
caregiving with great uncertainty.
know that you are not alone. Many caregivers across the
country find themselves having mixed feelings about
caring for their parents. Some of these emotions arise
from the natural concern about how best to provide care
without adversely disrupting oneís own busy life.
However, it is also very common for caregivers to have
even stronger feelings, such as shame, bitterness, and
anger as they try to cope with the caregiving needs of
elderly parents that have caused family issues to arise.
with our parents may suddenly be in a state of change
and as we age we are often called from our role of a
child to take on a parental or authoritative role. It is
important to be aware of the possible dangers of
unresolved issues and identify the feelings that have
come forward through this situation. This time of
transition can cause strong yet dormant emotions to
surface and open old relationship wounds. If we are not
aware of these feelings, we may be at risk of
inadvertently targeting our vulnerable parents with our
anger. Sometimes, if unresolved issues and
associated strong emotions are ignored, our ability to
provide good care can become compromised. We may become
less gentle, supportive, or empathic in our care. We may
also become avoidant, or respond more slowly to our
parentsí needs. In more severe situations, angry
caregivers may unknowingly seek revenge or cause harm,
which is dangerous for both the caregiver and parents.
It is important
to decide whether to try to resolve issues with parents,
or leave the past alone. This can be a difficult
decision, but an important one. Admittedly, facing past
issues can be very complicated and attempts to reconcile
differences may only add to oneís own personal pain or
disturb a parentís overall well-being. At this point you
may decide to NOT try to resolve issues, do your best to
provide good care, and develop some ways of coping with
your own mixed feelings. In many cases, this is the best
choice to make.
If you realize
that your feelings will keep you from providing good
care and having a positive relationship with your
parents, then it may help to sit down and directly
discuss your feelings with them. In some situations, it
is better to write a letter to your parents, followed by
a discussion. In our experience, this kind of discussion
has often led to a resolution of issues, has freed those
involved from their feelings and resulted in a much more
The act of caregiving alone can
sometimes bring about the healing of emotional wounds
from the past. Providing direct or indirect care for a
vulnerable parent can help bring closure to unresolved
issues. Anger can sometimes be replaced by
understanding, compassion, and perhaps forgiveness.
Peacefulness can overcome bitterness, which can then
lead to a beneficial and healthy experience for both
parents and family caregivers.
spite of mixed feelings, can be accomplished
successfully in several ways:
is. Acceptance of the current circumstances and
reasonable expectations of oneís ability to be a
caregiver are crucial steps.
memories can intensify during the caregiving
process. Be aware of your limits and seek
professional assistance, such as counseling, if
healthy ways of managing your emotions. Find a
release, such as a walk, a good cry, journal writing
or expressing your frustration to a close friend.
what you are realistically willing and able to do in
regards to the care of your parents, given how you
feel about them.
other tasks and needs to those who are able to serve
in the caregiving role such as other relatives,
neighbors or friends, especially if you are a long
community resources through social services,
churches, senior volunteer organizations, Area
Agencies on Aging and family caregiver support
asking for help is a sign of strength.
In summary, many
of us find ourselves faced with mixed emotions toward
providing care for our parents. These feelings may be
mild or more severe and perhaps based upon years of past
family conflicts. Whether you decide to resolve the
issues or not, providing positive care for your parents
is the goal. Many caregivers have used this time in
their lives to address difficulties which can then
hopefully lead to reconciliation, healing and a more
meaningful caregiving experience.
Heck, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist with the Duluth
Psychological Clinic in Duluth, MN. He specializes
in working with clients with chronic illness, and their
spouses and families.
Kristine Dwyer, LSW is the
Caregiver Consultant for Carlton County Public Health in
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