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Caregiver Guilt - Balancing Family Expectations About Providing Care vs. Asking for Help

As our loved ones age or a disease progresses, caring for them can mean taking on increasing levels of stress and responsibility. The demands can easily grow beyond what you can reasonably handle, yet you may feel expected to continue. 

If you’re the eldest child, a childless sibling, or the closest-in-proximity loved one, for example, it may feel like the bulk of care responsibilities get thrown at you. Often with an expectation that you’ll just pick it up and not complain. This family dynamic can create a sense of caregiver guilt, leading to a difficult balance between what you think you should have to do and what is expected of you. 

But when is it ok to say no? In this article, we’ll touch on these family dynamics and expectations as they relate to providing care and help you understand when it’s the right time to ask for help. Let’s dive in.

What is Caregiver Guilt?

Caregiver guilt is exactly what it sounds like – guilt that is triggered or caused by the caregiving experience. (Source) It’s often the cumulative effect of things like: 

  • The stress of providing care

  • Having expectations thrown at you from other family members

  • Resentment over additional burdens (like time or financial ones, for example)

  • Or overwhelm from the weight of your responsibilities inside and outside of care, to name a few.

Guilt is unfortunately a common feeling among caregivers. It can weigh heavily on your heart if you don’t address it. It can also manifest in different ways, including thinking you're not doing enough or somehow falling short. 

But it's important to know that these feelings are natural and that you're not alone in experiencing them. Here are some of the ways guilt can show up for caregivers and how to cope with it:

Types of Caregiver Guilt

As we touched on, caregiver guilt can come from and manifest in a lot of different ways. Here are some of the things that may trigger it for you:

Guilt about feeling inadequate.

Maybe you look at all the tasks you handle and compare them to the tasks your loved one needs help with. Sometimes, you may sense (or be flat-out told that there’s) a gap. This can cause a sense of worry that you’re not doing enough for your loved one. 

Caregiving is hard work, and it's okay to have moments of frustration, overwhelm, exhaustion, or impatience. You also don’t have to be able to do it all yourself. That’s part of being human, not inadequacy.

Guilt about balancing responsibilities.

Juggling caregiving with other duties, like your work and other family, can leave you feeling torn or pulled in different directions. It's natural to feel guilty for not being fully present in every aspect of your life, but try to give yourself grace. 

You're doing the best you can.

Survivor's guilt.

If you're caring for someone with a terminal illness, for example, you might experience survivor's guilt. This is the sense of feeling guilty for being healthy while your loved one suffers. If you feel this way, it’s important to remind yourself regularly that you are not responsible for their illness. Your love and care for them is all you can do, and is more than enough.

Guilt for asking for help.

You probably already know this, but sometimes it’s important to get a reminder. 

It's okay to look for support from others, whether it's professional caregivers or friends and family. You might feel guilty for needing assistance, but no one can do it all alone. Asking for help is a strength. There’s humility and strength in recognizing you can’t do it all alone.

Guilt for taking care of yourself.

It's okay to prioritize your own well-being, even if it means taking a break from caregiving. You might feel guilty for needing time for yourself when your loved one has so many needs you can help with. 

But self-care isn't selfish. It's necessary for your health and your ability to provide care long term.

Guilt about making tough decisions.

Sometimes, your loved one may need more care than you can provide at home. It's natural to feel guilty about something like moving them to a senior living community or care facility. But for so many families, it’s what’s in the best interest of the loved one in your care.

How to Balance Family Expectations and Ask for Help

Here are some steps you can take to help you move through the challenges of caregiving while managing expectations with your family:

1. Make a list of your caregiving tasks and personal responsibilities

Once you have a full list, rank each task by importance. This will help you prioritize tasks that matter most and show you where you can easily remove or delegate other tasks to reduce the burden on your plate. 

Note: Caregiving demands tend to change over time, and adjustments may be necessary.

2. Prioritize your relationship with your loved one.

Providing care tends to change the balance and flow of the relationship. Whether you’re a child now caring for a parent or the care recipient’s spouse, the foundational dynamic of your relationship may have shifted. As such, do your best to avoid neglecting your bond with them amidst the caregiving responsibilities. 

You can do things like reflect on memories together or continue to make jokes together to strengthen your connection and bring comfort during challenging times. Find joy in shared moments, whether brief or lasting.

3. Set boundaries with family and friends to avoid unrealistic expectations.

As a primary caregiver, many outside of the role will not understand the burdens you carry. As such, it’s important to communicate when you need help or to set a boundary. When possible, instead of outright refusing demands, suggest involving others in the caregiving process to share the responsibility and alleviate stress.

Asking for Help

Now you have communication, boundaries, and a prioritized list of tasks in place. To ask for help, take the tasks you’ve determined are lower priority and/or tasks you’re comfortable delegating and start communicating with outside friends and family with specific requests.

Mentioning casually to your family that you’re overwhelmed is likely to result in sympathy. Asking someone to drive your loved one to the doctor each week is likely to result in help.

There are also a lot of resources out there outside of your family that may be able to help. Sign up for a free CareNav account to start digging into them.

Closing Thoughts: Caregiver Guilt and Finding Balance

It’s normal to feel guilty as a caregiver, whether it’s triggered by stress or family expectations. It is absolutely normal, but it's also important to find healthy ways to cope with these feelings. Taking care of yourself isn't selfish—it's essential for providing the best care for your loved one.

The California Caregiver Resource Center of Orange County is here to provide assistance and guidance to help you do that. Check out our library of resources to help you navigate this experience. Together, we can navigate the healthcare landscape and help you provide the best possible care for your loved one(s).

Further Reading: Fitting in Fitness: Prioritizing Wellness as a Family Caregiver

From the emotional toll of witnessing a loved one's struggle up close to the physical and mental strain of continuous care, family caregivers navigate a complicated situation each day. As such, it can be hard to prioritize the caregiver’s own health. It’s easy for it to feel secondary to their loved one’s more pressing needs. In this article, we’ll look at why focusing on your health as a caregiver matters, how you and the loved one(s) in your care can benefit from prioritizing exercise each day, and how to incorporate it into your routine. Click here to read all about it.


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