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Carol Bradley Bursack, Published March 16 2013

Minding Our Elders: Caregiver worries she’s not doing enough for mom

DEAR CAROL: I love my mother and have tried to be a good caregiver to her during her battle with cancer, which is in remission, and now with her lung and joint problems. She’s just 78-years-old and seems to be letting life go on without any enjoyment. I do my best to make her life as smooth as possible and hope to provide her with some happiness. The problem is that she is chronically unhappy with her life no matter what I do. How do I judge if I’m doing enough for her when she’s so unhappy? - Joyce

DEAR JOYCE: Your mother has been through significant pain, both physical and emotional, and from what you say, she’s still suffering. Also, from what I’ve read, most people who have survived cancer understandably feel vulnerable to a recurrence of the disease, which can contribute to a negative outlook on life in general.

There are therapists trained to help people like your mother. If you haven’t approached her about seeing someone, it’s worth a try. Her oncologist may be able to refer her to someone who specializes in post-cancer therapy. Also, a cancer survivor’s support group could help her meet people with the same concerns that she has.

Perhaps your mother’s current pain could be better controlled, as well. You could schedule an appointment with her primary doctor for a full checkup and ask about referrals for her other problems. It’s also possible that an antidepressant could help her. If the doctor suggests this type of treatment, he or she will still likely suggest that she see a psychologist for counseling.

I understand and sympathize with your desire to not have your mom give up on life, but there are some realities to face. Keep in mind that she’s old enough to have lost a number of friends to disease or death. She’s doesn’t have the control over her own life that she’d like and she sees what control she does have threatened by her physical illnesses. Aging is simply tougher for some people than others, and you can only do so much.

As far as how to “judge” yourself on your caregiving, it seems to me that the very fact that you wonder at times if you could do better is enough evidence that you are doing your best. Your mother has had many health problems. You’ve helped her, and are continuing to help her. If there are times when you feel you’ve fallen short, that’s only human.

Would you consider a short course of counseling yourself? It sounds as though you’ve been doing a wonderful job as a caregiver, but you need some perspective relative to how much you can actually accomplish for your mother. With counseling, you’ll likely learn to appreciate yourself as an admirable person and to understand that there are limits on all of us as far as what we can do for others.

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.