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Let’s Talk About Guilt and the Emotional Journey of Being a Caregiver

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Guilt: it seems to go with the territory when you’re a family caregiver, right? You feel guilty not spending enough time with Mom. But when you’re with her, you’re plagued with guilt about neglecting family and friends who may be needing your time as well.

Or, you can’t stop blaming yourself for losing your temper with Dad. And the thought of placing him in a nursing home has your stomach tied in knots. You decide to take a night off – get away from it all at a movie with a friend. But you spend the entire time worrying about what your dad is doing and feeling guilty that you aren’t there with him.

An Emotional Roller Coaster

Many emotions surface when you take on the job of caregiving, noted Donna Schempp, LCSW, writing for the Family Caregiver Alliance in an article entitled “The Emotional Side of Caregiving.” “Some of these feelings happen right away and some don’t surface until you have been caregiving for a while. Whatever your situation, it is important to remember that you, too, are important. All of your emotions, good and bad, about caregiving are not only allowed, but valid and important,” she added.

“Many feelings come up when you are caring for someone day in and day out. Many caregivers set out saying, ‘This won’t happen to me. I love my mother, father, husband, wife, sister, brother, friend, etc.’ But after a while, the ‘negative’ emotions that we tend to want to bury or pretend we aren’t feeling come up. Caregivers are often reluctant to express these negative feelings for fear they will be judged by others (or judge themselves) or don’t want to burden others with their problems.”

Coping with Guilt

So how do you cope with this guilt? “You need permission to forgive yourself,” Schempp said. “You can’t be perfect 24/7. It’s impossible to be in perfect control of how you feel at all times. We all carry around a lot of ‘shoulds,’ such as ‘No one will do as good of a job as I do, so I have to be here all the time.’ Or ‘If I leave and something happens, I will never forgive myself.’ Consider changing guilt into regret, ‘I’m in a difficult situation and I have to make difficult decisions sometimes.’ ‘I regret that I am human and get impatient sometimes.’ ‘I am doing the best I can even though things go wrong from time to time and I regret that I am not perfect.’ “

Four Emotional Guilt Trips

The following are four “guilt trips” that are part of many family caregivers’ emotional journeys and what you can focus on instead:

1. I feel guilty for not spending more time with Mom. 
When Mom begs you to stay longer or to come visit more often, it can feel like a real guilt trip, especially when busy schedules and distance make visiting difficult, and when you know your visits are the highlight of her otherwise lonely existence. Yet trying to satisfy all the demands of work, family, and everything else will only stress you out and keep you from making the most of the time you do have.

What to focus on instead:
Try to make the time you do spend together as meaningful as possible. Check out these tips for how to get mealtime conversations going or for sharing memories with your loved one. For the times you can’t be there, consider how companionship services could help. You won’t feel as guilty "abandoning" Mom if she has someone coming on a regular basis whose company she enjoys and who can provide conversation, facilitate activities, help around the house, and provide transportation wherever she needs to go.

2. I feel guilty when I lose my patience with Dad.
It’s pretty much a given that an aging parent will try your patience at one point or another. Family caregivers of an aging loved one with dementia who exhibits repetitive behaviors may find this is especially true. But there are more productive ways to handle impatience than to feel guilty about it.

What to focus on instead:
Patience typically wears thin when you’re worn out and exhausted. If you feel like you’re reaching the end of your rope, use that as a warning sign that you need to take a break. It’s important to care for yourself and make sure you’re getting enough rest so you can be at your best for your loved one. Put your energy into finding time for a break rather than dwelling on feelings of guilt. (See number 3.)

3. I feel guilty when I take time to myself.
Putting another person’s needs before your own is a sign of love. You may feel it’s your duty to devote all of your time and energy to care for your parents the way they cared for you as a child. This is your chance to give back and you don’t want to feel selfish or let your loved one down by putting your needs before theirs. But you can’t ignore your own needs forever and it’s self-defeating to feel bad about indulging a little in yourself.

What to focus on instead:
The only way to sustain the love and care you feel your loved one deserves is to take good care of yourself as well. Remind yourself that you can be a better caregiver to your loved one when you get enough rest, eat healthy meals, and have a chance to attend to your own needs. Take a look at these "Caring for Yourself While Caring for Others" resources for tips on how to balance your loved one’s needs with your own.

4. I feel guilty for putting Dad in a nursing home.
Maybe you think it’s not what Dad would have wanted, or you wonder if there is more you could’ve done to keep him at home. But there’s no use dwelling on the past, which you cannot change.

What to focus on instead:
If there’s a chance Dad may recover from his current illness that renders nursing help necessary, start planning ahead to make the transition home possible. If it’s not feasible to move your loved one out of the nursing home, do what you can to make his time there as comfortable as possible. Visit as often as you can and make your visits meaningful (see number 3). Bring photos and decorations to personalize the room and help make it feel more like home.

Above all, remember that you can’t be an effective family caregiver if you don’t take care of yourself, both physically and emotionally.

Last revised: December 10, 2019

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Thoughts and stories from others
  1. May 25, 2018 at 9:51 am | Posted by Paul

    I'm with you and agree as well. Don't want to preach out to you. I'm 45 yrs old live here with my dear mom that suffers from Dementia. No it's not an easy job. First want for any caregiver, volunteers, loved ones, and friends. We were chosen by our creator because he knew we are the only ones that can do it the best. He wants the best sitter to care for his child. Wouldn't we want the best for our children? Yes, I do have siblings they help not the way I wish they would. Lots of people have told me God is going to bless you at the end.... I responded I'm alraedy blessed for having her. I've even broken up several relationships because my mother comes first. I'm home with her 23/7 .There's times that are great others not so good. Lots of pain and sadness and cries. We aren't alone. Each min that you're with your loved one take advantage because once our time comes that will hurt the most at least we will be at peace in our hearts for doing God's will. Hope and pray for each and everyone of us until we meet again keep up the good work peace. Paul.


  2. November 24, 2017 at 3:00 pm | Posted by Todd Stiles

    My wife is 71 and I am 57 I put her in a memory care unit a year ago after taking care of her for 16 years I feel so alone siting home alone and no friends I work 12 hrs a day see my wife and check in on my 83 year old mom so lonely


    • March 22, 2018 at 3:18 pm | Posted by James McGrady

      Sir, my store is not even begin to compare to yours. I can't even imagine what you must have went through. I was a caregiver for my mother in law for the last 2 and a half years she had a uti and a delirium episode and is now in the local hospital going on 3 weeks now my health it's not the greatest. I can't go down there every day and I feel guilty because of that. But listening to your story. Make me realize. I don't know what it makes me realize makes me realized I don't have it so bad? I just feel guilty, but it's false guilt, I know. I Good luck to you


  3. May 18, 2017 at 12:09 am | Posted by Jac

    My father died five years ago and my mom is now 85 living on her own. I go to her home a few times a week, take her shopping, to appointments, do yardwork, and I have had her live with me for a few weeks while she recovered from a fall. We were hoping to find a home with an in law apt, but were unable to. Instead we ended up in a house thats great for us as we get older, but set up terribly to have her come live with us. She is depressed , anxious and scared yet unwilling to do anything medically about it. Her hpuse is falling a part and she doedn't want to fix it or move and live in senior housing. Her health is not great and she is very negative and says all the time she is ready to die. I feel guilty, frustrated and helpless to make her life better.


  4. May 4, 2017 at 1:50 pm | Posted by shankari

    My dad 87 years old passed away on 17 april . he was independent and stayed alone with a caretaker after my moms death .i m one of the 3 siblings who took care of him as the other two were in different cities .i have financial constraints to run my own family. I had been attending to him all through these years he preferred to stay with me .my brother admitted him in palliative care after he had a fall with a minor hip fracture much against his wish he went into depression leading to mild dementia and Alzheimer's disease.hospise did noct care and no treatment was given .i decided to take him back to the home where he lived . after 2 months of stay in the hospice i discharged him to b with the caretaker then . he had cold and survived only for 9 days after pneumonia. I am guilty for not giving him fulltime care as he always wished to b with me how to come over this situation


  5. March 16, 2017 at 9:24 pm | Posted by Mary

    My father passed away 19 years ago my mother lived on her own until she turned 89, then just couldn't do it anymore. My husband and I changed our living room and dining room into a bedroom and sitting room. She is now 93. She walks with a walker hunched over. Her mind is all there, and no significant health problems. But my whole life revolves around my mother. Her appts., her meals, her needs etc. I'm getting tired of not being able to come and go and have a life with my husband. We each just seem to do our own thing. I feel sooooo guilty, but I want my life back! She could afford to go into a retirement home with the proceeds of her house, but she's terrified of going into one. I just can't get over the guilt!


    • February 2, 2018 at 1:42 am | Posted by Cindy

      My sister and I were in the same situation with my mom. She lived 2half the week with each of us but it still took 12 hours a day to take care of her.. we couldn’t live our lives freely and we began to resent her for it. We had to put her in memory care about 6 months ago. We visit her everyday for about 2 hours. We take turns. We now have the rest of our life back to go to dinner or have friends or exercise the stress away. It may not be the best life for her but it is the best life for all of us concerned. I can finally get a good nights sleep.


  6. January 8, 2017 at 7:42 pm | Posted by pat sullivan

    mom's in the hospital after a fall - the sixth in about two weeks-due to arthritis and alzheimers. i've taken care of her for three years and she has steadily declined. i know it's time - but, the guilt has kicked in. we've shared her house for 32 years and now it's so quiet and lonely without her here. i feel guilty that i'm here and she isn't. i feel guilty that she's probably never coming back. i feel guilty because i feel like i should do more to keep her home but i know there's nothing more i can do. i know that i shouldn't feel guilty and i'll be looking for help - counseling - to help me. i didn't realize that these feelings are universal for caregivers until i started looking in the internet. i know none of this is my fault and it will be ok.


    • November 19, 2017 at 8:39 am | Posted by Teresa Boyd

      I hope things are going ok for you. I found your story and can relate. My mom fell and broke her hip. I opted for surgery to give her a. chance to walk again. She’s in stage 6 if Alzheimer’s. I understand how the guilt can be overwhelming. I hope you’re doing ok.


  7. November 14, 2016 at 12:21 am | Posted by Bobbie

    I am 55 and my big sister Lisa is 59 . 3 months ago I had too place my sister after 6 years living with her . She was diagnose with early onset Alzheimer's . It had been so hard this past summer she went manic . I am not able too deal with my guilt everyday I go to this memory unit and watch her just pace and scream for me to take her home. I ask God too help me , but then I just feel like dying . Her screaming for me too take her home .


  8. October 14, 2016 at 10:57 am | Posted by Barbara Goins

    I've never had the greatest relationship with my Dad. He was a tense, type A personality, who tended to blow up at the least thing. He was overly critical and although I knew he loved me I never felt as though he was very happy with me. I spent most of my youth feeling like I was walking on egg shells around him. To be fair I was the kind of kid with a very independent streak and that didn't sit well with my Dad. Four years ago my husband transferred back to our home state so we could move in with my father to help him with the up keep on his house. (My mother passed away 10 years ago) At the time he was 88, very spry and still driving. He just couldn't do heavy cleaning or yard work. He offered to put an addition and a bathroom onto the attic bedroom for us. So home we came. Two months after we moved home he decided not to add on to the attic.... which became a problem as I have kidney stones and use the toilet often. I now run from the attic to the basement to pee in a bucket if the only bathroom is being used. We contribute to the household by buying the groceries, paying for the cable and internet bill, cleaning, cooking and yard upkeep. Now that his physical health as well as mental status has deteriorated, which we expected we drive him to the mall for his daily walks and take him to all his doctor appointments. We can't leave him alone anymore, he's prone to falling, and now that my husband has retired we don't go anywhere together. My husband goes out to our camper on weekends in the summer (I want him to have some enjoyment in his retirement) That's our life in a nut shell. Dad is not easy to deal with and my guilt is growing my the day. He's easily confused and because of his personality he can be argumentative... he never has anything positive to say about anything I do. He will pose his criticism as jokes, but it's obvious that he's not kidding. The house is falling apart and he won't let us do anything to repair it.... he has the money to do it... he is well off. We said we would pay for the repairs etc... and he said no... it was his house not ours. In fact we bought a new toilet seat last week and I gave him the receipt for the purchase..... he said he'd pay 1/3 of the cost as the 3 of us used it! I love my Dad, while we've never been emotionally close, and he wasn't a "fun dad", he is my father, now he is old and I feel guilty for resenting him....


  9. October 8, 2016 at 6:25 pm | Posted by Alana Kaye

    My mother has severe dementia and is in a home a good distance away. I have a very demanding job, also a good distance from home but in the other direction, and only get to see her once a weekend. Others in my family are making me feel terrible about not seeing her more often, but I honestly don't know how I can manage if I do -- I never have enough time to sleep as much as I should during the week, and I take work home with me every weekend. I really am doing the best I can, but I guess I question it or I wouldn't feel so guilty.


    • December 3, 2016 at 9:22 pm | Posted by Kimmi

      I took my 77 YO mom to a nursing facility today. I had been staying with her in her home since my father passed a month ago. Mom is in moderate stages of Alzheimer's . It is a wonderful small 19 resident memory unit. She did not want to stay to say the least. I thought I'd be able to relax for the first time in 10 months(since dad's decline and I made frequent visits to help), but it's so difficult. I know she needs 24 hour care and I cannot do that and work and be with my family. Snd although I'm not second guessing our decision, it almost feels like I sent to to a place where she might loose her spirit and stay angry and resentful. I hope it gets better.


  10. August 28, 2016 at 11:32 am | Posted by brian delaney

    im am the caregiver for my 85 yr.old mom who suffered a stroke four yrs.ago. she has been living with me for about 25 yrs. so my story is alittle different. i am finding it exhausting to have to be the only one to look out for her. i have 6 siblings, one being a sister who lives right next door to me, and i only see her on weekends for an hour or so visit or the occasional trips to the grocery store. i have one of my other brothers who is 57 yrs old living with me as well, and i get no help from him either. how can i make my siblings realize that at 65, i am getting really tired of the emotional stress and burdens put upon me by this.drs. said that my mother need 24 hr. care which all agreed she would have at home. i didn't know at the time that i would be the only one providing care for her. i have to take her to drs. appt. hair dressing appt.s etc.. anyone have any suggestions for me


  11. August 22, 2016 at 8:29 am | Posted by Roslyn Turner

    I just recently admitted my husband, a retired vet, to a nursing home. I had been taking care of him for 9 years. I see him every other day even though it's not close to home. He has dementia and diabetes. His combative behavior makes it difficult for them to care for him. That's why I worry about him. They gave him meds to calm him but has not seemed to work as yet. I don't like the way the medicine makes him. He's sleeping to much, not eating enough and he's fallen 3 times since the new antidepressant was given to him. Sometimes it's hard for me to believe that he is as difficult as they say. When he was home he had begun that behavior but I felt it wasn't that bad even tho he hit me three times. Its not him anymore. I often wonder if I did the right thing. I keep second guessing myself and trying to think of another way. I don't sleep at night worrying about him. All day I think about him. I'm trying to do things to take my mind off him but its hard. I have no one to talk this over with. I only have one son in the area and he does not want to deal with it or listen to me.


    • November 14, 2016 at 12:26 am | Posted by Bobbie

      I know I have the same problem .. I had too place my 59 year old sister Lisa. She became very manic this summer. She has been in a memory unit for 2 1/2 months. She is not acting calm I also go every other day. She screams and fights when she see me, crys for me too bring her home.


  12. July 24, 2016 at 8:23 am | Posted by Lorraine

    I am 61 and my dad is now in a nursing care center near me. I am the only one going to visit him these past almost 3 years but now it is getting to me physically. I feel impending doom, I don't know how to relax, I am getting sways of dizziness as well as twitching in my head and feeling it in my eyes. I am on a lot of medication for my Panic Attacks but what I feel now is not panic it is guilt when I don't feel like going to see daddy. I love him with all my heart and he is right near me but I can't take seeing the others anymore in the home and those that have died who were with my dad as a roommate. I feel impending doom, I have seen too much death, my life is not happy, I cry alot over guilt. Daddy now has alzheimers and my dear mom died in 2011 from Breast cancer at 77. I miss her horribly and now having dad in this state is taking my all. No one cares, no one helps What can I do to relieve myself of feeling so overwhelmed and guilty and ill.


    • August 7, 2016 at 6:53 am | Posted by Troy

      At least you care about you. /That is why you came to this site to see how to proceed. Like most of us, right? The last thing your mom or your dad would have wanted you to do is to think of this "impending doom".


    • August 25, 2016 at 11:09 pm | Posted by Pat

      I am 62, work full time and had to put my dad in a nursing home today. He is 91 years old and had prostate cancer 40 years ago that has now started to become active and has spread to his spine causing severe pain. I don't live with him, my 68 year old disabled sister lives with him and has been taking care of him for at least 15 years and just can't do it anymore. I have one other sister who lives nearby but we are all in our 60's and not in the best of health so it's impossible to take care of him. When he was home with my sister he wanted something every 5 minutes and driving her crazy. We don't know how much longer he will live and was just hospitalized for 3 days but today they said he had to leave because they couldn't do anything else for him. They started radiation 2 days ago but because he was leaving the hospital medicare and blue cross wouldn't pay for it and it was up to the family to get him there. This is a man that they had to transport to the stretcher by picking him up using the sheets because he couldn't sit up or stand A nursing home wouldn't accept him if he needed radiation so we had no choice but to stop the radiation and he didn't want it anyway. It might have shrunk the mass for a little while helping with the pain but it is not a cure. Dad was fighting us tooth and nail not to go to the nursing home and trying to make us feel guilty. He is and has always been a selfish man. Anybody have any suggestions on how to make him understand that we just can't do it anymore.


    • September 26, 2016 at 10:06 pm | Posted by Dalila

      I can totally relate. I'm in the same situation. My dad passed away 9 years ago and I have been my mom's advocate, best friend, companion; the list goes on and on. I've been everything except her daughter. Shortly after my dad died, she was diagnosed with dementia. For all these years, I've been doing really well with caring for her, being able to deal and understand the illness but just recently, I've become mentally exhausted. Two years ago she went to a nursing facility with a dementia unit and all I do is worry about how well she is cared for, if she is being respected, is she feeling lonely? It does not stop. I truly need to find a way to turn this situation around or I will become very sick and than she will have no one . Wish I had an answer to help you but perhaps we can research and help one another as I always say, unless you are in my shoes, you cannot fully understand. I have been on other sites about care giving and I find this one to be the most helpful and really address what I'm going through


    • September 26, 2016 at 10:27 pm | Posted by Dalila

      It is so difficult!!! I wish there was a way to change our mind set and not feel so guilty. Searching for answers, when I find them, I will be sure to share. At least reading the posts and being able to relate makes me feel like someone gets it.


    • October 10, 2016 at 12:19 pm | Posted by Ashkhen Aristakessian

      I'm searching for the answers as you are. I'm 58, and I've taking care of my husband for 12 years. Guilt, anger, frustration, sadness, hopelessness, etc. are just a few of overwhelming emotions that we endure as caregivers. Only those who have walked your journey will understand and validate your emotion. My heath aches for you, and I wish I had a magic wand to make it all go away. Sending you love and hugs.


    • October 10, 2016 at 12:21 pm | Posted by Ashkhen Aristakessian

      I'm searching for the answers as you are. I'm 58, and I've been taking care of my husband for 12 years. Guilt, anger, frustration, sadness, hopelessness, etc. are just a few of overwhelming emotions that we endure as caregivers. Only those who have walked your journey will understand and validate your emotion. My heart aches for you, and I wish I had a magic wand to make it all go away. Sending you love and hugs.


      • November 17, 2016 at 6:23 pm | Posted by dalila

        Sorry it took me so long to reply but I've had a lot going on. I do appreciate your comment. I too am the kind of person who wants everyone to be happy and be well and perhaps that is why we suffer so much to the point that is makes us physically sick. Sending you love and hugs as well.


    • April 11, 2017 at 6:06 am | Posted by Jane

      My father has Alzheimer's and has been in a care home for two anda half years now. I have suffered with depression, anxiety and panic for 24 years. My mother died when I was expecting my daughter, after which I spent more time with my dad, and we also had to keep an eye on my father-in-law (his wife died before we married). Eventually the father-in-law had to go into a Nursing Home. We felt the usual guilt, but it was the best we could do for him. My father has gradually over the past 26 years taken up more and more of my time. We've taken him out, on holiday with us, done the decorating, gardening, cleaning, and, latterly, washing. The Alzheimer's gradually crept up and we finally got a diagnosis about 4-5 years ago, but there was no help from the government. We found a carers charity, which has been our lifeline. However, the stress of taking care of my father, and trying to cope with my own illness, plus my husband's various stays in hospital, our elderly neighbour next door pestering, the noisy neighbour on the other side, who puts his radio on loudly for days at a time, all these things and more besides, have really taken their toll on me. I now feel quite broken, my nerves are completely shattered, and I just don't know if or how I can get better. So, just know, that I can really empathise with you, Lorraine - we have also had a lot of deaths in the family, so I know that feeling of 'impending doom' only too well. Best Wishes.


  13. March 22, 2016 at 12:59 pm | Posted by Donna Harmony-Jones

    Thank you. A post full of content of tremendous value. Sharing with friends and family members and on my business page.


  14. February 18, 2016 at 8:02 pm | Posted by david williams

    I tended to my wife who had terminal cancer.she was the love of my life.i watched her deteriorate before my eyes.i always told her I loved her.she had a mastectomy. She didn't feel like a woman but I told her she was more of a woman than many other women. I prepared myself for the end.i grieved along the way but it still hurt when she stopped heart sank as i kissed her good bye. I cried and went home to tell my son that mommy was with Jesus now.


  15. June 30, 2013 at 12:17 am | Posted by Ellen Uzarek

    When My Mom passed away I didn,t get home in time and felt guilty for so long,thinking if I had only got there sooner maybe she would have lived,It took me yrs to realize that it was not my fault,it was just meant to be....but coming to terms with that is tough.


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