Caregiving Emotions

Part of adapting to caregiving involves being prepared for the unexpected such as falls. Planning ahead for what to do when a fall occurs and you're alone to deal with the crisis helps to keep the panic down when it happens for real.
Part of adapting to caregiving involves being prepared for the unexpected such as falls. Planning ahead for what to do when a fall occurs and you’re alone to deal with the crisis helps to keep the panic down when it happens for real.

Caregiving Emotions are Challenging

Caregivers Start on Shakey Ground

     Have you seen sandcastles swept out to sea? Houses built on sand have no anchor in the ground to help them stand against waves. They can crumble without that foundation.  Adapting to caregiving may feel the same way without possessing the background or skills needed to know what to do. Learning by trial-and-error works, but it’s a painful, difficult way to learn.

     Most caregivers fear making a mistake and causing harm; therefore, they prefer a cautious approach to performing medical tasks or making decisions. Many spin their wheels in frustration, repeating tasks, wasting expensive supplies, and “holding” in limbo trying to figure out a caregiving problem. The loss in time and money, not to mention the pressure they feel to hurry up because they have so much to do, pushes many toward depression and burnout.  

Caregiving Requires a Foundation

     What do caregivers say would help them feel less overwhelmed and burdened? According to a survey conducted by AARP (American Association of Retired People), Caregivers say that knowledge, resources, and access to information would help make a caregiver’s life easier.

     With a sturdy foundation, caregivers gain personal strength and self-confidence to survive life’s storms. Without that preparation, they become overwhelmed and feel unprepared when an emergency arises. Their unsteady tower of strength comes crashing down around them, washing their confidence out to sea like waves pulling sand out from under their feet. 

Emotions and Caregiving

     Caregivers often acquire the role of caregiver without warning.  They have little or no time to prepare for their new responsibilities mentally, financially, or emotionally.  Often, they have no option but to accept the role.  Hundreds of emotions survive as a result.

     While in a state of emotional shock, caregivers must pull themselves together and make life-changing decisions. Sometimes, the person affected helps make choices; other times, the caregiver faces them alone. Decision-making must occur within minutes or hours under highly stressful conditions with almost no time to prepare or acquire background understanding.

     Everyone affected reacts almost without thinking based on what they know or feel in that moment and then must live with those decisions later, good or bad. So is there any wonder that caregivers are overwhelmed with emotions? Whether the role comes after an emergency or months of anticipation, taking on the responsibility for someone else’s healthcare and life is huge.

Situations Are Unique

     Each person’s situation, of course, is different. Plus, each situation changes a lot over time. The issues Lynn and I faced in the early years aren’t close to what we face now but are nonetheless just as difficult. Keep in mind, each person’s problem is a crisis for them.  It might seem small to you because you have dealt with so many crises you thought were worse, but for them, it’s huge. Never forget that and show them that empathy and respect always. No personal pain is small.

   ( in the US 2020

Strength doesn't come from what you can do, it comes from overcoming things you once thought you couldn't
Strength doesn’t come from what you can do, it comes from overcoming things you once thought you couldn’t

Dealing with Caregiving Emotions

Emotional Loss

     All caregivers feel the emotional impact that accompanies changes in circumstances. Full-time caregivers have difficulty dealing with caregiving emotions because they typically experience the greatest change and loss of personal freedom. Feelings of guilt surface when trying to cope with grieving the loss of personal freedom. 

     However, loss is an honest emotion.  Caregivers should experience a feeling of loss and need to allow themselves to deal with it. Running away from the feeling will only lead to resentment, depression, or anger.

Why are there negative emotions?

     When a family member becomes ill or injured, everyone focuses on their condition and recovery. Family and friends aim all attention, empathy, and support toward that individual’s needs and how they can help reduce the negative impact of events on their life. The affected family member’s personal view is like looking into a camera lens.  When they look through the viewfinder, they zoom in on themselves, and the background is a blur.

     While the affected family member’s viewfinder zoom’s-in for a focused shot, the caregiver’s viewfinder enlarges to a panoramic view. The caregiver must consider the needs of the affected family member and incorporate their therapy/recovery requirements into the household’s landscape.

     The caregiver must adjust their life to incorporate the care plus responsibilities of the affected family member. Often, the caregiver coordinates communications with the injured family member’s job, updates others on recovery status, monitors insurance claims, orders medical supplies, becomes a nurse, physical therapist, respiratory therapist, and psychiatrist, and supports other family members emotionally impacted by the condition of the affected family member. The tasks quickly become unmanageable.

Grief Hits Home

     The unpredictable nature of managing someone else’s world and medical condition feels beyond the caregiver’s control. However, controlling the situation remains their responsibility. Regular battles with fear, anxiety, anger, and frustration occur. Then, one day, whether from exhaustion or a song heard over the radio, the weight of their unstable block tower shifts, and all the blocks they so carefully constructed come tumbling down. At that moment, the grief for the life they’ve left behind hits them in the gut. “This” is not going away anytime soon.

Adapting to caregiving can feel overwhelming.
Adapting to caregiving can feel overwhelming.

Emotions Include Letting Go

Caregiving Requires Dream Reassessment 

     Emotions are a constant companion for a caregiver.  In the early days, emotions relate to the events surrounding why care is needed, often causing feelings of fear, hope, dread, anxiety, grief, or relief as the reality of the illness or injury becomes clear.  However, as time progresses and the shock wears off, fatigue sets in, a short-term recovery evolves into a long-term condition, different emotions surface. New fears develop regarding sustainability and endurance from so many perspectives. Anger, resentment, guilt, disappointment, and depression are all common emotions for those providing long-term caregiving.

Permanent Changes

     Just as the one who becomes injured or ill needs to accept the loss associated with their change in condition, the caregiver too must face the losses associated with permanent caregiving. Dreams once held are no longer possible, social interactions restricted, personal finances deleted, and in many cases, their life expectancy reduced. From their window seat, looking out at the world, they feel life is bypassing them. Unfortunately, for some, the sacrifice is made for someone who doesn’t appreciate it or may even be abusive.

     In other situations, the family members feel privileged to provide their loved ones with the care they need. The opportunity to love, care and support a mother or wife as she finishes her last days allows them to remember the good times and cherish fond memories forgotten from long ago. The one receiving care is very appreciative of all efforts provided. Other family members pitch in to help, neighbors and friends drop by to offer support, and the caregiver receives the encouragement needed to keep going. 

     The fact is that both examples described above could exist in the same situation but at different times. Caregiving emotions are complex, and situations change regularly. There is a desire to hold on to the past and how things were while living in the reality of day-to-day exhaustion, trials, triumphs, and unknowns. Yet, at the same time, even though there is a fear to hope that tomorrow will be better, they have an intense longing to move beyond where they are now.   Caregivers crave a routine but usually manage to tread water as each day brings with it new challenges.

Financial Pressures 

     Financial pressures and 24/7 responsibilities cause some caregivers to give up trying to dream.  They fear that if they hope for anything, disappointment will occur. Therefore, hope seems hopeless. So instead, they choose to become numb. Where there is numbness, there is no pain.

     Adapting to caregiving requires a reality check. Suddenly, more money is going out than is coming in, and the amount of time spent on essential duties far outweighs the non-essential. Memories of their former lives and dreams tumble through their brain, reminding them of the past.  At such times, it’s tempting to let fear take control and defeat them.

Change Doesn’t Have to Be Bad.

     Caregivers need to allow themselves to grieve perceived and real losses and accept the changes that occur. The only way to work through grief is to allow yourself to work through it. You don’t have to “sit in it” and dwell on it but allow yourself to feel sad. Acknowledge the loss and pain you feel. It hurts. You need time to heal, and it’s okay to allow yourself to grieve the loss.  

What Happens if you Ignore your Emotions?

     Emotions are like a volcano.  They simmer and brew under the surface, building steam and creating pressure. The pressure builds and builds until it can’t expand anymore. Then, a crack forms, a break follows, a crevice appears, and finally, an explosion of emotion erupts.

     At some point, the body is going to release the pressure building up inside. What happens if you don’t provide a method for a controlled release of the pressure? An emotional eruption will likely occur unexpectedly, resulting in an extreme reaction to a minor situation.  Afterward, you have a lot of explaining to do and maybe some severe consequences. Try handling it as a firefighter would. Try a “controlled burn” first before letting the forest burn out of control.  

Emotions Lead to Suffering

     If you’re someone who stuffs their emotions away without too much effort, don’t think you can escape.  While you may hold your emotions eep inside, they are still doing their dirty work where you can’t see the damage.  Once they get stuffed away, the pressure attacks your body like corrosion, eating away at pipes. As a result, you develop pain, illness, depression, or other forms of suffering. Sometimes, the effect is dramatic. Ever hear of someone under stress seemingly fine one minute but dropping dead from a heart attack the next? That’s stress.

     You honestly have no choice but to deal with emotions. Once you fill up your emotional bucket, emotions must go somewhere. Something is going to happen. How the bucket gets emptied is, therefore, up to you.

Releasing Pressure

     If you work through emotions, you gradually release the pressure and reduce the bucket’s contents. The temporary emotional grief is cleansing and can provide space for new dreams to grow. With the help of a therapist, faith, a healthy lifestyle, and other self-care techniques, you can learn to cope with the stress, anxiety, and fears of caregiving so that you can have a happy future as a caregiver. 

One of the best lessons I’ve learned as a caregiver is to deal with today’s problems today and let tomorrow’s issues deal with tomorrow. That’s not to mean I don’t make plans, I still do that, but I don’t dwell on the “what if’s.” I think Jesus said it best, “Therefore, do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself.  Each day has enough trouble of its own.” Matt 6:34