Carol worked hard to take care of her mom. She took her to the doctor, cooked for her, and was always there when her mom called and needed help. Friends called her a saint, and always praised her, but Carol felt differently. She sometimes felt angry and even resentful, and that made her feel guilty. She thought she was betraying not just her mom, but her friends—if only they knew her true feelings, they’d see her in a new light. Carol didn’t know she shouldn’t feel guilty for harboring such feelings; she didn’t know that these feelings are normal, and even healthy, but only if people feel free to explore them.
Part of working with aging loved ones is understanding what you are feeling so that you don’t lose sight of yourself, and so that you can handle these emotions rationally and beneficially. This isn’t a luxury. Not recognizing what’s going on in your head and heart can have serious consequences when they’re ignored.
Handling Your Negative Emotions
Too often, negative feelings toward the older adults in your life are pushed down and treated as something ugly that should be ignored. That’s not the right approach; it only makes certain that they won’t go away. Here are some of the common negative emotions caregivers have, and good ways to deal with them.
The funny thing about guilt is that it often strikes those who least deserve it. If you’re trying to be anything and everything to an older adult, you may feel guilty when you can’t. But being superhuman is impossible—you are bound to fail in your own expectations at times. The worst thing is, mentally beating yourself up for this is counterproductive to good caregiving.
Dealing with it: Remind yourself that “perfect” is the enemy of “good.” You can fail to cross off everything on your “to do” list, and still be an outstanding caregiver. Set realistic expectations—and realize that every once in a while, you won’t be able to meet those, either. And that’s okay.
Resentment is one of those toxic, corrosive emotions that no one likes to talk about. To admit, even for a moment, that you harbor negative feelings towards a loved one is almost taboo. However, it’s easy to become bitter when you’re carrying a heavy load you did nothing to deserve, or you don’t think others are chipping in as well or often as they should. At the heart of resentment is a loss of control. You feel you can’t break away from responsibilities that are like a yoke around your neck.
Dealing with it: Try reaching out for help. Explain to other family members that you can’t do this on your own. You don’t have to lay a guilt trip on them. Just explain rationally that X, Y, and Z need to be done, and while you can do X and Y, Z makes it impossible for you to live your own life. Maybe an uncle knows someone who can help, and he’ll pay for it, or your sister finds the time. This is the best way to lessen your work, and lessen the resentment you might feel.
Closely linked to resentment is anger, but it is more overt and in some ways, easier to deal with. Resentment can be ignored or buried (both unhealthy, to be sure), but anger frequently comes out in ways that command immediate attention. Yelling, hitting things, and other displays of anger have immediate consequences, even if it’s just another person’s reaction. That’s why they must be addressed just as swiftly—not to mention the fact that anger can lead to health hazards like high blood pressure, heart disease, heart attacks, ulcers, and more.
Dealing with it: The most important thing is to figure out the causes of your anger. Anger management therapy can be a way not only to control your emotions, but also to understand why you have them. There are also a lot of therapy and discussion groups at churches and other places for people who are helping aging relatives. Even just knowing that there are a lot of people who share what you are going through can help.
Anxiety is another deep-seated, insidious emotion, like resentment. In its most basic form, it’s a type of constant worrying—a phenomenon well-known to caregivers. Anxiety also stems from feeling like things are out of control. This is understandable, since the needs and problems of older adults can change on a daily (and sometimes hourly) basis. One minute your loved one is fine; the next, they need to be rushed to the hospital. Then it turns out the issue was minor, and they’re back home again. But constant anxiety can be damaging to your health, and can even interfere with your loved one’s care.
Dealing with it: Make a list of things that you are most worried about, from “mom falling in the shower,” to “store not having the right kind of peanut butter.” Some anxieties are serious, and some aren’t, and you’ll be able to better prioritize your emotions. Determine which of your worries could be alleviated by taking decisive action, and which can be handled with stress-relieving techniques, including meditation, breathing exercises, crafts, or anything else.
Recognizing if you have these feelings takes more than just being completely honest. It means looking at yourself without shame. You don’t have to feel guilty for feeling resentful. That’s normal, and it is fine—provided you are willing to explore what makes you feel this way, and deal with it rationally and in a way that makes your life, and the life of your older loved one, that much better. Set aside time to address these potential threats, because that’s exactly what they are. When you deal with situations that cause negative emotions, you can stop them from doing lifelong damage to both you and your loved one.
If you are unsure of how to best help an aging loved one, the trained and compassionate staff at the Institute on Aging is here to help you make that decision and gain the best in at-home care for older adults. Contact us to find out more.