How Do I Take Care of Myself While Caring for a Parent?

Dear GoodTherapy.org,

My mother has Alzheimer’s, and I’ve been her primary caregiver for some time now. She lives at home in a mother-in-law space at my husband’s and my house, at least for now. It’s easy for us to check on her, and for the most part, taking care of her doesn’t take up terribly much of my time. But more and more I feel mentally or emotionally drained by it, and I’m not sure how to deal with that since I can’t afford to step back from caring for her (if anything, she becomes more dependent on me).

Right now it’s impossible for me to consider paying a nurse or someone to come check on her, and I just don’t have the time for therapy sessions. My relationship with my husband suffers because after working full-time, caring for my mother has become my next priority. She’s 92 and I know this arrangement is only temporary, but I wouldn’t feel good about sending her to a care facility yet or spending any less time with her.

Is there anything I can do to continue being present for her but also attend to my own self-care needs I’ve been neglecting for over a year? Bonus points if you can help me be more present for my husband somehow, who has been very understanding but also feels overlooked lately. —Reluctant Nurse

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Dear Reluctant Nurse,

I’m so sorry to hear about your mother. Alzheimer’s is such a challenging disease in nature—not just for the person afflicted, but for their loved ones and caregivers. The physical and emotional toll it can take on loved ones is significant, and I am not surprised you are feeling the strain. Her needs are only going to intensify, so it is important to start addressing your well-being now.

There’s an old adage that you can’t fill a cup from an empty vessel. If you are emotionally drained, you can’t possibly attend to the needs of others. Self-care is essential in this regard. Many of us, however, can feel as if taking steps to provide that self-care seems selfish. It is not. It is what allows us to provide for those we love in meaningful and intentional ways.

I would encourage you to look at your reluctance to explore care facilities. A good care facility can provide physical and emotional care for your mother while reducing the strain on you and your marriage. Whatever feelings you are holding on to about spending that quality time with your mother are strong, and speak to the great love you have for her, but they may not ultimately be serving you or her.

You mention you don’t have time for therapy, but I encourage you to make time. There is a real grieving process that goes on with watching a parent drift away, and keeping busy doesn’t stop the grief from happening.

You mention you don’t have time for therapy, but I encourage you to make time. There is a real grieving process that goes on with watching a parent drift away, and keeping busy doesn’t stop the grief from happening. The untapped grief is likely contributing to your mental and physical exhaustion. An hour a week to address these issues is a small investment of time that can lead to significant relief.

From a practical standpoint, I also suggest looking into what options for respite care are available in your community. There are agencies that can provide relief for caregivers—even just a couple of hours a week—to get a break and attend to that much-needed self-care. Some even offer it as a volunteer service.

It also sounds as if you feel pulled between caring for your mother and attending to your husband. It is natural to want to devote as much time as you have available to your mom, as you likely feel that your time with her is limited. Wanting to get every last possible moment with her is natural, but when she is gone, you are going to need the love and support of those around you, including your husband. Staying connected with him is not only important for your relationship now, but for your well-being in the future.

Again, I recommend making time to work with a therapist on the grief of losing a parent, on the reluctance you have to relinquish caring for her, and on the emotional and physical strain you are experiencing.

Best,

Erika

Erika Myers
Erika Myers, MS, MEd, LPC, NCC is a licensed psychotherapist and former educator specializing in working with families in transition (often due to separation or divorce) as well as individuals seeking support with relationship issues, parenting, depression, anxiety, grief/loss/bereavement, and managing major life changes. Although her theoretical orientation is eclectic, she most frequently uses a person-centered, strengths-based approach and cognitive behavioral therapy in her practice.
  • 4 comments
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  • Tim

    Tim

    February 10th, 2017 at 10:45 AM

    We are going through the same thing with my mom but there are three of us to spread the things out between plus her insurance is helping us out with getting someone in to help with stuff around the house too. It is hard when you think back on how much your parents have always done and sacrificed for you and you feel like there will never be any way that you could ever pay them back. But you have to remember that that is what they chose but they would never want you to give up on yourself for them. You have to watch out for yourself and take care of yourself so that you can still be there to help take care of them. You are not any good to anyone when you let your own needs go.

  • Susan S

    Susan S

    February 23rd, 2017 at 11:23 PM

    I have a question for Tim…I had to leave my job to care for my mom full time and have been trying to find insurance for custodial care. Would you be willing to share withe me what insurance company is providing help for your mom? Thank you in advance!

  • joyce

    joyce

    February 13th, 2017 at 7:49 AM

    It can be such a hard decision when you know what would be in the best interest of the parent but you are also still trying to keep your own health in line as well. I know that we never want to send our parents to a home but there are times when this really can be the best option for everyone.

  • Laurence

    Laurence

    February 15th, 2017 at 11:55 AM

    Gosh when I look back on all the sacrifices that my parents made when I was growing up I think that there is nothing that I wouldn’t do give some of that back to them in return. I know that I could never pay them back but this is the circle of life to me, they gave everything to me so why shouldn’t I now have to give some of that back in return? I always think about that and of course it is hard on any one of us, but they did it without question so why shouldn’t we do the same?

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