Aging Loved Ones: Feelings of Guilt and Inadequacy

Is it normal to be weighed down by negative emotions while caring for an aging loved one? When my dad had a stroke, my wife and I took him into our home because we thought it was the right thing to do. I guess I expected to feel good about myself for doing such an unselfish thing, but instead I'm wrestling with guilt and a sense of inadequacy, as if we're failing him somehow. How can I get rid of these feelings?

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Your experience is normal and extremely common. Though you set out on this road with the best of intentions, you’re only human, and as a result you’re prone to frustration and discouragement. The stress of trying to care for an aging loved one while neglecting your own needs can lead to negative feelings and a crushing load of guilt. You may resent having to “do all the work” and then feel guilt or even depression over your anger. Emotional reactions of this kind just go with the territory.

It may help if you can step back and take an objective look at your situation. If you’re feeling guilty, it’s crucial to find the perspective you need in order to distinguish between true and misguided guilt. False guilt can be caused by other people who are trying to make you feel guilty. To ward off such guilt, start by telling yourself the truth. Admit that you’re doing your best and learning to do better. Give yourself credit for what you’ve accomplished and what you are able to do, always remembering that it’s important to give proper attention to your own needs in the care-giving process.

Misguided guilt may also be self-imposed. This can often happen when you start to worry about circumstances beyond your control. For example, employment can place limits on the amount of time you’re able to devote to your father’s needs. If he falls and breaks a hip, you may be tempted to blame yourself for not preventing the accident. The remedy? Refuse to criticize yourself or dwell on your inadequacies. Dwell instead on what you can do, relying on the faithfulness and goodness of God.

Self-imposed guilt also arises when a caregiver lacks feelings of love for an aging parent. This may be the result of childhood abuse, neglect or other parental offenses. When love, the number one motivator for care-giving, is absent, duties and tasks may become dull, distasteful and excessively burdensome. If you ignore or try to repress these feelings, your emotional state will only deteriorate and everyone will lose. If this is the case with you, turn to the Lord in prayer and ask Him to help you forgive your dad and fill you with a new love that doesn’t depend on circumstances. If you’re feeling guilty about your resentment, try to separate your feelings from your commitment to your father. Remember that real Christian love – the agape love that Paul describes in 1 Corinthians Chapter 13 – is a decision. It’s a matter of choosing to honor another person even when he doesn’t deserve it.

It’s possible, of course, that some of your guilt feelings are legitimate. This is something we can’t possibly determine without knowing you personally. You alone are in a position to search your heart and decide whether the Holy Spirit is asking you to repent of wrongful attitudes or behaviors. You may have broken a promise or acted irresponsibly toward your elderly loved one. You may have intentionally harbored negative feelings against him. You may have been disrespectful or lost your temper.

If after an honest self-examination you come to the conclusion that your guilt is genuine and needs to be confronted, don’t allow this realization to crush you. Instead, reaffirm the good news that Jesus Christ assumed all of your guilt when He hung upon the cross. If you’ve offended your father, confess it to the Lord – for “if we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). Then do your best to make amends for your actions. Admit your mistake and acknowledge the hurt you’ve caused. Ask for forgiveness, and accept it if offered. If it isn’t offered, be patient and pin all your hopes on the Lord alone. That’s the only way you’ll be able to carry out the difficult assignment He’s given you.

If you’d like to discuss the specifics of your situation with a member of our staff, feel free to call Focus on the Family’s Counseling department.

 

Resources
If a title is currently unavailable through Focus on the Family, we encourage you to use another retailer.

Caring for Your Aging Loved Ones

Complete Guide to Caring for Aging Loved Ones

The Overwhelmed Woman’s Guide to Caring for Aging Parents

Boundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No, to Take Control of Your Life

Referrals
National Association of Area Agencies on Aging

Caregiver Action Network

Articles

Caring for Ill or Aging Parents

Excerpted from The Complete Guide to Caring for Aging Loved Ones, a Focus on the Family book published by Tyndale House Publishers. Copyright © 2002, Focus on the Family.

This information has been approved by the Physicians Resource Council of Focus on the Family.

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