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What to Do When Being the Caregiver Is Not an Option

Not everyone has the resources and stamina to take on the role, and it's OK


There are 66 million unpaid adult family caregivers in America — 29 percent of the adult U.S. population — providing care to someone who is ill, disabled or aged, according to the National Alliance for Caregiving and AARP. Female caregivers outnumber their male counterparts two to one. In 2012, female family caregivers, on average, were 48 years old, lived alone,and provided about 25 hours of care per week.

As anyone who has done it knows, caregiving is rarely a sprint. It is most often a marathon of planning, adjusting, attending and doing. Not everyone is capable of staying in the race.

When You Cannot Be the Caregiver

What happens when being a caregiver is not an option? What do you do when your own health, personal and career commitments or relationship with the person in need of care leave little room for you to take on the added responsibility that comes with the role?

Many struggle with this relentless internal conflict and the onslaught of negative emotions that often result in a profound sense of isolation. The comments and judgment from outsiders add to your confusion and perhaps toxic sense of self.

What is called for at this crossroad is self-compassion. Surprised? You thought that I was going to suggest that you listen to your harsh self-criticism and dig down deep to find a way to be available and accommodating. Actually, I want you to honor your sense of personal limits and not make a commitment when committing to just one more thing could invite undue hardship or risk your health and well-being.

Ending Negative Messages

Just what is self-compassion? It is responding to yourself (and your situation) with kindness rather than criticism. It is stopping the loop of derogatory self-talk that often takes on the tone we imagine we would hear from some authority figure in our life. It is the extension of kindness, care, warmth and understanding toward oneself when we are faced with the reality of our human shortcomings, inadequacies, or perceived failures.

Self-compassion is not self-pity and does not mean perpetuating a sense of being a victim. It offers you the sense of objectivity and control earned by being an adult. Self-compassion is giving yourself the time and space to make a choice that honors your needs as well as the needs of others. Individuals who are self-compassionate are more likely to learn and grow from the challenges in their lives.

Self-compassion provides the foundation for developing personal resilience. It helps us to maintain a healthy perspective when we are bombarded by those on the periphery of the decision. They are those who are all too often unwilling to lend a hand but are free with judgments and rhetoric designed to manipulate you into thinking that you’re the best or only person who can do the caring when others cannot.

Many struggle with this relentless internal conflict and the onslaught of negative emotions that often result in a profound sense of isolation.

So my recommendation is to stay strong.  Honor your understanding of what is best. Do not make a noble sacrifice by ignoring what you intuitively know is right, wrong, healthy or destructive. Respond to the challenge of caregiving with critical thinking rather than judgment clouded by emotion. Put your own oxygen mask on first.

Where to Go for Help

  • Share the Care Organization: sharethecare.org. A not-for-profit organization that trains groups to create care circles for an individual.
  • Veterans Benefits Administration: http://www.benefits.va.gov/benefits/. Site contains information that can connect the vet to benefits and services.
  • HOMETEAM: http://join.hometeamcare.com. Find highly rated in-home care providers
  • Nursing Home Compare: medicare.gov. Site designed to help you shop for the best long-term services in your area.
  • Care Navigators: https://www.healthcare.gov/glossary/navigator/. Helps consumers look for health coverage options through the marketplace, including completing eligibility and enrollment forms. These individuals and organizations are required to be unbiased. Their services are free to consumers.
  • A Place For Mom: http://www.aplaceformom.com/. Connecting families with senior care options.
By Phyllis Quinlan
Phyllis Quinlan, Ph.D., has practiced nursing as a staff nurse, educator and nurse executive in a variety of clinical settings, such as emergency, acute care, skilled nursing and subacute care departments. She is the founder and president of her consulting firm, MFW Consultants To Professionals, Inc. As a successful nurse entrepreneur, she has consulted and offered continuing education on clinical and non-clinical subjects. Since 2004, she has also practiced as a legal nurse consultant specializing in defense in the Greater New York area and throughout New York State.

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