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Dealing with human emotion in caregiving

by Isabel Fawcett, SPHR

Whether one wishes to side-step strong emotions or not, strong feelings and emotional ambivalence go hand-in-hand with caregiving. We're only human. Avoidance may or may not be the best strategy in handling those pesky and recurring caregiving emotions. You decide.

Occasionally, even the very best of human relationships experience less-than-stellar moments. Add fully-developed adult personalities and long-standing individual preferences to the caregiving relationship mix, and it's a miracle when anyone stands by other individuals in sickness - and in health.

It should come as no surprise, therefore, when dedicated caregivers share the good, bad, and imperfect aspects of caring for chronically ill relatives. Who wants to be the heavy, anyway? Carers are trying to help - and we're human. That's some combination.

However the question is worded by caregivers in Anywhere, USA, the underlying concern is how to deal with emotionally ambivalent feelings in care relationships. For some carers, frustrating emotions may be infrequent. For others, those feelings seem to be ever-present and larger than life.

If ignored, such feelings will eventually get in your way and just as easily become overpowering. If only for that reason, avoidance is neither healthy nor advisable. Sometimes avoidance may be helpful as a temporary life re-grouping strategy, but that's about it.

Directional Signals in Care

Whether positive or not, emotions are a personal navigational system. Some of the overwhelming signals for caregivers might be:

  • Yield here - please!
  • Come to a full STOP here.
  • Elder-crossing alert.
  • Proceed with caution.
  • "Danger, Will Robinson!" (Baby Boomer that I am, I loved Lost in Space.)

In all likelihood, there is a high-alert code. Regardless, emotional signals all point in one direction. Something needs to give. Don't let it be you.

Some caregivers perceive emotional distress signals as outside their circle of influence or ability to manage. My father-mother-sister-grandparent, you-name-it, make me angry, or they make me act in this way or that. There are many constructive ways to manage and help ease carers' feelings of emotional discomfort. These may help you take a second look at painful or difficult emotions you may be experiencing in your eldercare journey.

  • Recognize when it may be beyond your ability to navigate alone. If you need help to get you through whatever you may be feeling, there is never any shame in seeking professional help to support you. Skilled professionals may be available through your primary care physician, area office on aging, faith-based organizations and geriatric social workers, to name a few. Some sheriffs' offices will provide callers with contact information for savvy social services representatives who will be able to refer you and/or your chronically ill elder to local service providers. Professionals are trained to help.
  • No one is always happy or upbeat - not even the most cheerful of caregivers. This is analogous to the socially jaded view that Christmas means everyone else is happy. Even when appearances may lead you to think otherwise, you're not the lone caregiver who has such emotions. I have chosen my path of full-time caregiving, love my mother as so many other caregivers also profess about their parents, yet there are days when I feel like pulling my hair out - like anyone else.
  • No one else owns my feelings other than me. Sometimes I try to help my Mom with something minor - anything. Occasionally, I feel as if she is pulling in the opposite direction. Mom is not responsible for my feeling, or how I may react to something that she says or does. I own my feelings in life, period. When that happens, I simply say, "Mom, I am trying to help you. It sure feels as if you're pulling in the opposite direction. Please trust me on this." My choice of words may or may not solve the issue at hand. What matters to me is my timely and respectful sharing with Mom instead of having my own feeling become a lump in my throat or butterflies in my stomach.

I appreciate it that Mom has asked me to let her know whenever I feel that way. She really means it, too. I have taken her up on that promise a few times, including a gentle mouth-washing reminder when I thought she'd overlooked brushing. Our informal agreement reminds me of co-worker buddies who invoke informal pacts to let each other know about bad breath. One buddy wordlessly offers a mint or stick of gum to the other. That's what buddies do for each other.

  • Letting go and moving on is better than brooding. This is easier said than done. Then again, everything we do in life requires some individual effort and level of commitment. If the effort required allows you to enjoy greater life energy and make the best of each day, is it worth it to you to think about what you might change if you wish to reclaim your serenity of spirit?
  • Enjoy everything that makes you smile, chuckle and laugh yourself silly. I can count on Stephen Colbert, Jon Stewart, and Jay Leno to make me smile. One of my forever friends, whom I have long-dubbed King of Comedy, hears from me often when I wish to laugh out loud. When I talk to him that would be my laughter you hear in Anywhere, USA.

I can always count on Mom's sense of humor and her timing in delivery, too. It helps that I have always enjoyed laughter. I think I got it from my mother!