There is no one-size-fits-all approach to caregiving. Every family caregiver must be free to make choices that work best for their unique situation. Even then, the available options aren’t always ideal. In this demanding role, we must acknowledge the reality of our individual situation and give it our noblest effort. Unfortunately, with other family members, friends, elder care professionals, fellow caregivers and the public looking on, it isn’t uncommon to receive a harsh word or two while we juggle these difficult responsibilities.
Being human, I suppose we all second-guess others’ choices from time to time, at least silently. However, when we do that, we should remind ourselves that it’s likely we do not have enough information to cast judgement. No matter how similar a caregiving situation may seem to your own or someone else’s, it’s important to remember that we have never truly walked in another’s shoes.
A Caregiver’s Experience Facing Criticism
As a caregiver for multiple elders, I’ve received my share of criticism. At one point in my journey I was providing some type of care to five elders in three different locations, as well as caring for my two young children. Still, there were those who felt that I should have provided for my elders in my own home. Of course, these comments didn’t come from people who were familiar with my family’s complete situation. They were casual onlookers providing unsolicited “advice.”
Those who knew of the complexities I was coping with understood that I needed to hire the help of outside care providers. I was fortunate to be able to arrange in-home care and placement at a terrific nursing home for my aging loved ones as their needs increased. Doing so didn’t make me less of a caregiver. It merely made me different from a friend of mine who moved her aging mother into her home.
Caregiving situations are simply too diverse, complicated and emotionally charged for others to pass judgment on. Not to mention there is a serious learning curve involved when it comes to taking on the care of an aging family member. While we should understand this better than anyone else, sometimes we caregivers are the ones comparing hardships and leveling harsh words. From time to time, we must step back and remember that each person has their own approach to this monumental task. We should be able to respect all takes on this labor of love.
Not Everyone Is Cut Out to Be a Caregiver
One group that receives the most flak is those who choose not to provide hands-on care. These people may have succeeded in setting firm boundaries with manipulative loved ones, or they may simply acknowledge that they do not have the emotional skills, physical ability or financial resources to be a good caregiver.
That they refuse to provide care personally to another person does not diminish their love for them. Lacking deep empathy, patience and/or a desire to self-sacrifice does not make someone a bad person. It simply means that they have the self-awareness to realize they probably aren’t the best candidate for this challenging role. Many of these people still participate in their loved ones’ care by advocating and managing from a distance while they hire outside help to see to personal needs.
A similar approach works for many long-distance caregivers. Aging loved ones have their friends, their home, their doctors and a community that they don’t want to give up. Likewise, few of us can end a career, uproot our children and spouses, and move to be closer to our parents in order to care for them. Therefore, in many families that are spread across the country, much of the in-person care must be delegated.
On a more serious note, I’ve had many adult children who grew up in abusive homes ask me what their obligation is to their aging parents. It is incredible to me that some people still feel some degree of concern over a family member’s wellbeing despite the hurts they have caused. What I tell these potential caregivers is that they only need to do what they can without subjecting themselves to further trauma.
Healing can take many years but it can be undone in a moment. Individuals from dysfunctional families may decide that they can’t bring themselves to give hands-on care, so they choose to hire and manage outside help from a distance. Or they may feel that they can visit once a week and handle some minor tasks, but that is all. There are some, of course, who simply walk away, and that is their right. Who are we to judge?
All Caregivers Incur Sacrifices of Some Kind
When it comes to hands-on caregiving, two of the most contentious factors seem to be scaling back or completely giving up one’s career to provide care and living under the same roof with a care recipient. These are both very serious decisions that come with short- and long-term consequences, therefore they should never be taken lightly as personal considerations or casually suggested to others.
Many people choose to quit their jobs to become full-time caregivers. They may struggle financially during this time and feel the effects of this choice when it’s their own time to retire. Some caregivers even move in with their loved ones (or vice versa) to see to their needs around the clock. This can have a huge impact on relationships with one’s spouse and children, where applicable. The bottom line is that these people are doing what they feel is best for their loved ones, their families and themselves.
I strongly believe that caregivers who stay in the work force and find other ways to ensure their loved ones are taken care of shouldn’t criticize those who stay at home. Conversely, those who make the sacrifice to stay at home shouldn’t think less of others who hire help. My caregiving experience involved both scenarios.
Early on in this role, my job (in addition to being a mother) consisted of racing around town seeing to my elders’ needs in various senior living settings. During a number of my later caregiving years, things changed and I worked a full-time job in addition to looking after my three remaining elders who all lived in the same nursing home.
Both situations involved considerable sacrifice on my part. In those later years, I had no choice but to go back to work, but I did not by any means abandon my job as a caregiver. We all simply had to adapt. Amazingly, both choices drew criticism from others who thought—the operative word is “thought,” since they weren’t in my shoes—that they would have made better choices. I had to learn to tune out the criticism and accept my best effort as such.
Show Kindness and Empathy, Even if You Don’t Agree
One of the saddest stories I’ve heard in the many years that I’ve been writing for and supporting fellow caregivers came from an elderly woman who had cared for her husband with Alzheimer’s disease in their home for years. Eventually, her husband became violent and impossible for her to handle. She was frail herself and beyond caregiver burnout. Eventually, she made the difficult decision to place her husband in a skilled nursing facility where she visited with him every day.
People who had never endured anything close to what she had been through condemned her decision, claiming she was disloyal to her husband and had given up on him. Understandably, this woman was devastated by the opinions of these people whom she had considered friends. As if the choice to move her beloved into the nursing home wasn’t heartbreaking enough, she was even more consumed by guilt over these harsh words.
My advice to her was that she was doing the absolute right thing for herself and for her husband. He was much safer in the care of younger, stronger professional caregivers, and she could visit and interact with him as his wife, rather than an aide, whenever she was able. She said it was helpful to hear this encouragement, but I knew I couldn’t heal the harm done by her so-called friends.
The lesson I want to drive home here is that we can never know all of the layers of someone else’s personal life. We aren’t living with their physical, mental and emotional pain. Therefore, we should respect and support individual methods of providing care to loved ones. The best rule of thumb is to only offer advice when asked. If you feel you must say something honest to someone you know very well, then do so without the slightest hint of criticism. Be sure you are coming from a kind place.
Most family caregivers go over and above the call of duty. They do what they can with what they are given. We need to support one another as equals, sharing our pain, our experiences and our best suggestions when asked. Supporting someone doesn’t always mean that we understand or agree with their choices. It means that we are there to help them along their journey by providing encouragement and hope.
The article "Respecting Diverse Approaches to Caregiving" by Carol Bradley Bursack originally appeared on AgingCare.com.
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