My Dad’s feeling down these days. He’s 90 and his vision, hearing and balance are failing. I understand his mood – his mobility is decreasing and as a result his world is shrinking. I want to visit often, listen to him, support him. But I struggle. I struggle because he is frustrated. He wants his health problems fixed and I think he believes I am not willing to help him.
I take him to the doctor. The doctor cannot find a cause for his poor balance. I suggest physical therapy. The doctor agrees. My father thinks the physical therapy is a waste of time. “It’s not helping,” he says. I ask about a hearing aid. I take him for a hearing test. That doctor says his hearing loss is irreversible. My father is frustrated that I haven’t gotten him a hearing aid to fix his problem.
He falls and hurts his leg. He doesn’t tell me. I find out from my sister who says our father didn’t tell me because, “Why bother?” He should bother because the last time he fell he cut his leg and it became infected. The infection was discovered and treated because I took him to the doctor. And then I ordered PT to minimize the risk for future falls.
I feel like nothing I do for him is good enough. Nothing’s working. But I cannot combat old age. I do not know what else to do for him. If there was a solution I woud try it. But I don’t have a solution. And so my father is frustrated with me, with his doctor, with life. And I am left wondering, “Why bother?”
But I do bother. I will go right over to check him out after I hear about the fall. He will tell me he is fine. I will take him for an exam anyway. He will tell my sister it was a waste of time. But I will do it again and as many times as is needed. I will also feel sorry for myself, in my head. I will think about all of the other things I could do with that time, things that have better outcomes – that have measurable results and for which people appreciate me.
I hear from lots of working daughters who are burnt out from caregiving, whose parent or parents show no appreciation for what they do, or are critical of what they do. They write to me and ask, “How can I get my mother to be nicer?” or, “Why doesn’t my father appreciate what I do for him?”
What if my parent doesn’t change? It’s a valid and scary question for a caregiver who is tired, fed up, overbooked, and who has most likely put some of her own goals and interests on hold while she cares for someone else. What if indeed?
Chances are your parent will not come around. They will not suddenly become less critical or more appreciative, or less scared and frustrated by the aging process – because fear and frustration are probably what are at the root of their behavior, not you. What does that mean for you?
So what? Now what?
Ask yourself these two important question. So what that your parent is not treating you well? Now what will you do?
To help you decide “now what,” remember that caregiving is a choice. Please don’t stop reading at this point; I know what you are thinking. “You think I choose this? You think I would chose to sacrifice my career, time with my kids, my sleep, my personal time, for this? You think I would chose to change the dressing on a wound, or an adult diaper, or a colostomy bag? You think I wanted this?” No, of course not. But how you react to a situation, how much care you give, is a choice. It may not be an easy choice. It may feel like a false choice. But ultimately it is a choice.
And so as caregivers we need to ask ourselves, “So what? Now what?” So this has happened. So my parent is old and sick and maybe ungrateful. Now what will I do about it?”
For some women the answer is easy. We will do what we want to do, not what we think we should do. And we know the difference between wants and shoulds because we have done the work to determine what is most important to us, to identify what we value, and to decide how we will act. The answer is easy, doing it is more difficult.
Learn to identify what matters most to you. Use our Finding Balance worksheet.
I have decided that I want to support my father. Regardless of how he feels about the care I am giving him, I want to feel good about it. That means I am clear about what I am willing to do and the only reward I expect is how I feel about myself. I cannot and do not rely on what he thinks of me. I rely only on my own measure: am I doing the best I can? That clarity also gives me the freedom to not do things that other people might think I should. I do not take him to the hospital for tests that could lead to a surgery I will not elect for him. I do not do things that might make me look good to others but feel fruitless to me. Ultimately, I am comfortable in my decisions. I am doing my best. But that doesn’t mean I don’t get grumpy or tired or sometimes wish things were different. I may be clear in my intentions; I am also human.
As caregivers – caregivers who have a choice in what we do or do not do for someone else – we need to find our own meaning and reward in our work. Relying on someone else’s opinion of us is the fastest route to burnout. Likewise, clarifying what we want to do instead of reacting to what others think we should do is the best defense against unnecessary caregiver guilt. Notice what I wrote above, I said of my father, “I think he believes I am not willing to help him.” That’s my guilt talking to me. Finding meaning and personal satisfaction in my caregiving is the best way for me to combat caregiver burnout and guilt.
The truth is, your parent may never appreciate what you do for them. They may never praise you. They may never say thank you. So what? Now what?