November is National Family Caregivers Month, a celebration of the millions of Americans who dedicate their everyday lives to providing unpaid care to a loved one or family member. According to AARP and the National Alliance for Caregiving (NAC)’s most recent study on the topic, the number of Americans who fall into this category has grown by over 10 million since 2015, as there are now roughly 53 million Americans providing this unpaid support – most of whom are spouses, daughters or daughters-in-law.
Caring for a family member can be very rewarding, but the 1 in 5 Americans who do so on a daily basis can promise you that it’s not always easy. There are a lot of emotions involved and sometimes they can get in the way of life. These emotions include anger, resentment, guilt, sadness, grief, worry, and loneliness.
It’s possible that caregivers may be unaware of the exact emotion they are feeling. That’s why taking the time for some self-reflection or conversation with a trusted friend or family member can help you understand your emotions and why you are experiencing them. I always like to say you can’t fix what you don’t face.
Anger often comes from a sense of obligation or a sense of being taken for granted. Caregivers can feel as though they’re stuck with the biggest workload because they’re the oldest sibling, they’re closest to the one receiving care, or no one else is around to help. On the outside looking in, it’s hard for someone else to understand the time and effort you’re putting in, and that can trigger anger in a caregiver.
Feeling resentment is similar to feeling anger, but not quite the same. Psychologists label the feeling as “the re-experiencing of past wrongdoings, real or perceived,” a feeling that you’re stuck in servitude of the person causing your discomfort. This means resentment is often aimed at the person you’re caring for, as their aging process or illness creates more responsibilities for you and makes you take on an additional role on top of your everyday life.
Guilt is a particularly draining emotion and it typically comes after noticing feelings of anger and resentment. Once you reflect on your emotions and begin to feel bad that you’ve developed hostile feelings towards a loved one, guilt is the next logical response. It can also be a primary driver of caregiver stress and burnout, as many family caregivers feel guilty for needing a break or not being able to do more for a loved one.
On the surface, sadness is much easier to notice as a family caregiver. Watching a loved one age or decline from illness can take a profound toll and make you feel an imminent sense of loss and eventual depression. Caregivers can also feel sadness once they start to miss their old life, before the stress and responsibilities caused by taking care of someone else.
Grief is a much deeper sense of sadness that a caregiver may not be able to fully understand right away. In addition to feeling sadness about impending loss, a caregiver may feel grief about already losing who they felt their loved one was before an illness. In extreme cases, a caregiver may also feel grief as if they’ve lost a part of themselves. Watching a loved one decline is mentally and emotionally draining; it’s a process that can forever alter who you are going forward. Feeling grief from this is a perfectly normal response.
All of the emotions mentioned above contribute to a sense of worry and anxiety, for not only your loved one but also yourself and the rest of your family. Being a family caregiver can make you concerned about some obvious things, such as your loved one’s well-being and future. But it can also make you question how your family dynamic will be changed, if you might have a similar future as the person you’re caring for, how the financials of the situation will play out, and overall anxiety about anything else that can go wrong.
When a caregiver begins to notice these emotions, they often isolate themselves and experience a feeling of loneliness. Not only do caregivers have less time to get out and socialize or do the things they enjoy, but it can also be difficult to share your struggle with others. Many times caregivers fear being judged for struggling to help a loved one, or they simply don’t want others to know that their loved one is in a state of decline. By hiding these struggles, it amplifies the sense of isolation from friends and other family members.
Once you can name the emotion, give yourself permission to feel it. It’s okay to have these feelings. They are real and valid. But the danger here is that if these emotions remain unchecked, it may have a negative effect on the person receiving care.
Just remember that managing these emotions paves the way for person-centered care to be front and center – the desired approach to optimizing quality of life and positive outcomes for those we care for.
Dr. Macie P. Smith is a licensed gerontology social worker who is focused on helping families support their aging loved ones through long-term care. Specifically, Dr. Smith educates caregivers on how to care for seniors with dementia. She is an advocate for specialized care and assists others in finding a way to provide a better quality of life for individuals with Alzheimer’s or dementia. Dr. Smith has dedicated over 22 years of her life working in gerontology and assisting families in finding personalized solutions for dementia care. For more articles by Dr. Macie Smith, go to https://synergyhomecare.com/blog/.
For more information on caring for a loved one with dementia, download SYNERGY HomeCare’s free Memory Care Guide.