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Carol Bradley Bursack, Published October 02 2011

Bursack: Caregivers often get caught up in guilt trap

Dear Carol: My mother has Alzheimer’s and is in an excellent assisted living facility memory unit. I have a good marriage, a teenage son and daughter, a full-time job, and the partial care of my in-laws, who are still in their home but growing frail. So far, my husband and I can handle all of this, but I feel a lot of stress. Kids’ activities need to be attended, my mother needs my love and care, my in-laws need twice-weekly visits, and, of course, my husband and I like some time alone. My husband bowls weekly, so he gets out for that and says it feels good. However, if I even think of taking time off to go for a solitary walk, I feel guilty. I know I shouldn’t, and no one is keeping me from doing this, but how do I get myself to enjoy time off if I take it? Guilt always wins. – Lydia

Dear Lydia: Caregivers need to recognize that caring for themselves is not taking quality care away from the care receivers. What can take quality care away from the care receiver is having the caregiver’s health significantly degraded by stress. Studies have shown caregivers to experience auto-immune diseases, depression and certain injuries in significantly greater numbers than the general population.

If you follow caregiver support groups online or attend one in person, you may find that reading about or listening to other caregivers’ guilty feelings will help you handle your own. You’ll learn from others that if you get very ill or die – which is possible as statistics show upward of 30 percent of caregivers die before their care receivers –your care receivers will suffer far worse than if you take a little regular time now to maintain your mental and physical health.

By communicating with other caregivers, a spiritual leader, or even a professional counselor, you should gradually learn that taking care of your own needs will enhance your health and caregiving ability. A refreshed caregiver is likely to be a happier caregiver. This mood alteration will likely rub off on your immediate family, your marriage and your elders.

People who love you want you to be healthy. Often they don’t notice how hard you work and how little time you have for yourself if you don’t step up and say so. Just going along with the status quo, without stating and accommodating your needs, will probably keep you stuck. Understand that your needs have to be met on some level if you are to stay healthy and active. Good luck. The attitude change can be hard, but it’s possible.

Carol Bradley Bursack is the author of a support book on caregiving and runs a website supporting caregivers at www.mindingourelders.com. She can be reached at carol@mindingourelders.com.