Who’s Taking Care of the Caretaker?

Two People Walking on BeachThe other day I was supposed to meet a dear old friend. The last few times we had plans, she canceled last minute because her mother, now 86, needed something. I understood, of course. This time she didn’t cancel, but she did tell me we’d have to meet for breakfast and it would have to be a quick one because it was her weekend to have her mother at the house and she didn’t want to leave her alone for long. This time, I opened my mouth.

“It seems like you have put your life on hold a lot lately, and your siblings don’t seem to do that. When do you get to have a life?” I must have struck a chord because she burst into tears.

“There just isn’t time for me,” she said.

Sound familiar?

With a growing number of people living longer and more adult children caring for them, this has become an issue of epic proportion. For those who have assumed the major responsibility of caretaking for an elderly parent (or two), their overwhelming needs can become a full-time job. Women especially fall prey to the feeling that they must take care of those around them before tending to their own needs (though more and more men are also facing this dilemma).

The analogy I like to use—whether in relation to a child, partner, or dependent elder—is the following: when you are flying on a plane, they tell parents to put their oxygen masks on first, and afterward to put on their child’s. The idea being that, when we first take care of ourselves, we can be better caretakers—not negligent, as we may often feel ourselves to be. Sometimes we are so busy “giving” that we don’t even realize we’ve got nothing left to give!

So, what are some basic guidelines for self-care when you are a caretaker?

  • Recognize that the more you give, the more you are expected to give. I observe this phenomenon in all aspects of daily life: the person who takes on the lion’s share will be expected to do more and more, while the absentee parties will be not only exempted from expectations, but often excused with understanding for their lack of participation. To combat this, maintain healthy boundaries. This means sometimes saying “no” to taking a loved one to an appointment and “forcing” them to call a less active sibling or friend who they never want to “bother” (though of course they think nothing of “bothering” you!). It also means scheduling your own activities and sometimes expecting that person to work around your schedule. This isn’t mean; it’s establishing that you have a life and your time and energy need to be honored and valued.
  • Dependence creates dependence. Encourage your loved one to be engaged in something he or she enjoys. Ideally it would be great to have at least one activity outside the home (community transportation is often available, so you don’t necessarily have to drive). The person can join a community center, take a class, spend time at another sibling’s house for the weekend, etc. This not only frees up your time, but also helps foster your loved one’s independence and happiness, which makes for a much more harmonious interaction with you.
  • Keep in mind that this person may live for a long time and you can’t put your life on hold forever. I have a friend who has been retired since age 62 and has postponed her plan to relocate until her mother passes away. She never dreamed her mother would live so long (she’s now 96!), and now she regrets not having relocated herself and her mother years ago. I’m not suggesting you dump your parent so you can go out partying, but rather that you figure in your own needs as much as his or hers as you plan for the long term as well as the minutiae of daily life.
  • Get help! Don’t take on everything yourself. I often hear about parents who want only their adult child (usually a female) to deal with their daily needs. But sometimes it is too much. Get a helper, companion, home aide, or something to spread the care around. Many elderly (and chronically ill people) who are fortunate enough to live in their own homes or their children’s can take for granted what goes into this process. You can also find many useful websites and organizations that can support you in being a caretaker. A support group can be a wonderful addition to your self-care routine.

Many, many people are caring for elderly parents, whether in their own homes or supporting them so they can stay in their homes. Know that you are not alone, and that this can be both a wonderful, enriching experience as well as a deeply challenging one. The more you take care of yourself, the more rewarding—and less depleting—it will be.

© Copyright 2014 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Lillian Rozin, LCSW, MFA, RYT, Aging and Geriatric Issues Topic Expert Contributor

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • stuart

    October 22nd, 2014 at 2:28 PM

    In most cases that you seem there is always one person who seems to take the brunt of the responsibility while there are others who may pitch in occasionally but will do nowhere near the work of that one person. And most of the time, there is no one taking care of them, least of all themselves.

  • Marley

    October 22nd, 2014 at 3:45 PM

    Do you have any suggestions on any support groups that I could encourage someone to try? I know that she is really struggling and feels all alone and I am sure that having a group or meeting to attend might give her some great ideas for things to do for herself or at least how to let go of those responsibilities and get away for just a little while. I think that she feels very overwhelmed, but without a whole lot of imput from other familiy members she kind of feels like her hands are tied.

  • ROD

    October 23rd, 2014 at 3:52 AM

    This is usually the forgotten person in situations like these. This is the person who does so much for another, that it is as if they lose their identity and the people around them forget that they need care and support too. It is different from what they are giving but they still need to receive some in return.

  • Eva

    October 23rd, 2014 at 11:02 AM

    my sister acts like such a martyr
    there are times when I think that she intentionally will not let anyone help her just so she can go around bad mouthing the rest of us
    she does not have a job but the rest of us work so to me it only makes sense that she would be the one to fill this role
    but she doesn’t have to do it all alone, we all offer to help when we can but you just hear the sigh and resentment as she tells us not to bother and I think that the frustration with all of that turns all of us off and makes us all a little less willing to help out more
    who wants to be beaten up all of the time for trying to do something good?

  • DollY

    October 24th, 2014 at 11:04 AM

    Well I have had to learn the hard way that while I sit and wait for someone to take care of me in all likelihood I could have been taking care of myself anf doing it a heck of a lot better than someone else ever would.

  • Kris

    October 25th, 2014 at 10:17 AM

    I am not even taking care of a family member who is an invalid, just my own family at home and there are days when I feel so overwhelmed that it can become hard to function so I can imagine how hard this must be for someone taking care of more than one household at a time. I would be an absolute basketcase. There has to be more balance in your life to make it through a time like this, and yes, even when you feel guilty you have to take some time to do something that you enjoy doing just for you. There is nothing selfish about it, because if you don’t have that time for yourself then that will be even less time that you can withstand that extra that you have had to take on.

  • Lillian (author)

    October 25th, 2014 at 11:31 AM

    Marley: I would suggest you look at the NAMI website and go to their local listings for support groups. If you don’t find anything there, you can do a search of therapists in your area who deal with families, older clients, chronic illness, etc. and see if any run groups such as this. As a last resort, you – or your mom – can pull one together. I personally have enough friends going through this time of life that I could probably form one with just my own acquaintances! Even if it is not therapist-led, it can be a great source of support and validating to know you are not alone in this challenge. Best of luck- Lillian

  • Patricia

    October 27th, 2014 at 8:58 AM

    Dear Marley. Your story has struck a chord with me. I get very uptight that we carers seem so invisible. I live in England and tho they try their best to give supportso many are let down. I am in my seventies and care for someone in their forties who has complex post traumatic stress. I love her dearly and it breaks my heart what she goes thru. She trusts nor has anyone else in her life that she feels she can rely on so it all falls to me. I so wish that the therapists or family physicians or whoever,would communicate withcarers on a one to one and see they get support and listen to their knowledge of the one they care for. If we carers collapse it will make everyones life more difficult. We need our health taken seriously too. All I hve been advised is to get out out of the situation and given anti depressants. To be fair there was a carers group but I am too tired to attend and it just added to my depression listening to the pain of others. Dont mean that selfishly. Some do find it very helpful. I wish I knew how to set up a blog fof carers so we can not just tell our troubles but cheer one another up. Maybe I should look into it. And keep on praying for strength.

  • Jack

    October 27th, 2014 at 10:13 AM

    It at times can make you very hesitant to do things for others because I think that sadly the people who do the most for others are the ones who always get taken advantage of the most.

    You want to do the right thing and to do your share but then there are those who do nothing and those who end up doing everything.

  • ambreen

    April 4th, 2016 at 8:27 AM

    I am 24 yrs old youngest in my family . I lost my mother last year in august. My mother had mental illness . My two elder sisters are suffering from severe mental illness. They were fine in childood and were very good in studies as they reached 20 they started having symptoms. My father is old and has cardiac issue as well. I have one brother who is not very responsible. My childhood passed in much trouble . My father couldnt undetstand my mother’s illness . They kept on fighting every time. All the neighbours were also fed up of us. I used to go on the roof and study there under the heat of sun. I completed my MBBS in 2014. Now i am the only one taking care of my sisters and my father. I cant even focus on my career and studies now. All my dreams have been shattered. I had the opportunities for good job out of city. But because of our low socioeconomic status i cant even shift my family there. And here i cant leave them alone. Medications are even not helpingy my sisters . The eldest one keep on shouting and has auditory hallucinations . She is on medication but that only calms her for less time. And the other one keeps on provoking to fight with her. She thinks i am her enemy. She has thrown my so many things outside the house. But i have beared all the loss. I keep my books , jwellery , laptop etc etc in a locker. I cant keep even small things outside. She has thrown my gold jewellery outside (not found) . My laptop in water tank. She has thrown my diaries, books , photos, original I.D cards and so many things . I get so upset some times , Icry alone. I am all alone. I have no shoulder to cry on. But i understand their illness and i cant control it. I just hope some day every thing will be fine. I know its the heridity disease. But i still hope someday every thing will be fine. Atlast i would say i hav learned this in a very hard way. That u live for others and less for urself

  • The GoodTherapy.org Team

    April 4th, 2016 at 9:37 AM

    Dear ambreen,

    Thank you for sharing your story. These things can be difficult to deal with alone, so we strongly encourage you to reach out to a qualified mental health professional. If you would like to talk about this or any other concern with a therapist, feel free to return to our homepage, https://www.goodtherapy.org/, and enter your zip code into the search field to find therapists in your area.

    Once you enter your information, you’ll be directed to a list of therapists and counselors who meet your criteria. From this list you can click to view our members’ full profiles and contact the therapists themselves for more information. You are also welcome to call us for assistance finding a therapist. We are in the office Monday through Friday from 8:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. Pacific Time; our phone number is 888-563-2112 ext. 1.

    Kind regards,
    The GoodTherapy.org Team

  • ambreen

    April 4th, 2016 at 9:52 AM

    Thanks you ” The good therapy.org team ” . I am going to take your advice into account . :)

  • Patricia

    November 20th, 2016 at 7:04 PM

    Would love some advice for people in healthy families.

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