Dear Carol: My mother suffered a series of small strokes that contributed to increasing disability. Since I'm divorced with grown kids, I retired early and had mom move in with me. This worked for nearly five years before a massive stroke made it evident that I needed to move her to a nursing home. Mom lived there for less than six months before she died. Sometimes, I'm overwhelmed by guilt over moving her, even though the care that she received was excellent. I tell myself that if I would have stuck with it six more months Mom could have been with me the whole time. Then I swing to resentment. I'm financially strapped from retiring early and constantly worry about money. It seems few of my feelings are positive or even sensible. I know time should help, but I'm tired of spinning my wheels and want to take some kind of action to get back on track. What can I do? - CL
Dear CL: I'm sorry to hear about your mother's death. After providing close care for so long, you are dealing with a major life change which makes adjustment extra hard. Your jumbled emotions are part of the legacy of long-term caregiving, so what you're going through is completely normal.
Caregivers seem to have built-in guilt. Should we have made different decisions? What could we have done better? There is no end to what we can find to feel guilty about. Many of us will also have times of resentment. We've likely sacrificed a lot to be a caregiver, be it financially, socially, or neglecting our own health. Some people also feel angry at the parent or spouse who died for leaving them adrift, without an identity. This is normal, as well.
When people emotionally get to the point where they want to take action, one thing they can do is write down their feelings. Take a sheet of paper and divide it with a vertical line. Label one side resentments. List your negative feelings about your caregiving years here. Label the other side gratitude. List on this side what you have gained as a person during this time, as well as other positive things about your life.
Most likely your first lists will have more resentments than gratitude. That's the plan. Give it time. Read through your lists weekly or on your own timetable and you'll probably find yourself making adjustments. Over time, you may realize that you've let go of some resentments because they no longer make sense, or because you now understand that they are holding you back. You may even find that you can switch some former resentments to the gratitude side because you've learned from the process.
Only time, and perhaps counseling if you continue to feel stuck, will help you recover. However, most people will find that making a list of what they have to be grateful for helps them realize that their life still offers the potential for some serenity.
Carol Bradley Bursack is an established columnist, blogger, and the author of a support book on caregiving. She hosts a website supporting caregivers and elders at www.mindingourelders.com. Carol can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.