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Caregiver resentment is normal: Why it happens and how to mitigate it

Even those who enjoy caregiving might find feelings of resentment bubble up. Here's why — and what you can do about it.

There are lots of upsides to being a family caregiver: helping your loved one through a difficult time, spending lots of time together and understanding firsthand what they’re going through. But even those who enjoy the role may find feelings of resentment bubble up.

And there are a number of reasons why that might happen, say experts — from having to juggle caregiving with other commitments, like kids and jobs, to dealing with the isolation and stress that can come with taking care of a loved one.

“Caregiving is exhausting, physically and emotionally,” says Jill Johnson-Young, a licensed clinical social worker and co-owner of Central Counseling Services in Riverside, California. “It feels like a thankless task at times.” 

Here’s a closer look at why you might feel resentment as a family caregiver, as well as ways to mitigate it.

Why resentment can set in when you’re a caregiver

Resentment can stem from a variety of issues when it comes to caregiving for a loved one. A few common ones: 

You might feel overwhelmed emotionally. If your loved one has an illness that causes a change in mood or personality, you may bear the brunt of the loved ones’ anger or hostility, despite the fact that you’re doing your best to care for the person and keep them safe, says Johnson-Young.

You may experience an abrupt change in roles. Going from being a daughter to a caregiver or from having a spouse to feeling like you have a patient can also bring up feelings of resentment, explains Denise McKnight, a social worker at Novant Health Hospice and Palliative Care in Charlotte, North Carolina.

You might be overwhelmed by the sacrifices and responsibilities. Caregivers often have to make many sacrifices in their own lives to care for their loved one, whether that’s giving up a paying job, as Johnson-Young mentions, which could result in financial stress or trying to manage lots of things at once. 

Long-distance caregivers, for instance, might be dealing with the daunting tasks of arranging care from across state lines and feeling frustrated when others don’t show up to help.

“Some older adults don’t want anyone but family to help them, which can put a strain on their relationships, triggering depression and anxious symptoms for both the aging senior and family member providing care.”

— DR. JULIE SMIRL, ASSISTANT PROFESSOR IN THE DEPARTMENT OF EDUCATION, COUNSELING AND LEADERSHIP AT BRADLEY UNIVERSITY

On the flip side, caring for a loved one who is now living with you can disrupt your own family routine, making it quite stressful, says Dr. Julie Smirl, an assistant professor in the department of education, counseling and leadership at Bradley University in Peoria, Illinois. “Caregivers can be trying to raise a family, work and care for a family member with little time for self-care,” she says. “Some older adults don’t want anyone but family to help them, which can put a strain on their relationships, triggering depression and anxious symptoms for both the aging senior and family member providing care.” All these types of situations can breed resentment, Smirl explains.

You may feel extremely inundated and isolated amid the pandemic. “Caring for an adult was hard and exhausting enough before the pandemic, and it’s only worse now,” says McKnight. “Now people have fewer resources or fewer family members who can help. Family members who might have come in from another state to relieve a primary caregiver for a bit now can’t. Or neighbors who might have dropped by for a visit in the past now aren’t. It’s lonely and isolating for caregivers. It’s harder to take a break.”

How to reduce feelings of caregiver resentment

Although resentment might be a natural, common side effect of serving as a caregiver for a loved one, it doesn’t have to overshadow your experience. Here, key steps experts recommend taking to preempt and minimize this complex emotion.  

Ask for and accept help

McKnight recommends telling your circle explicitly that you need help, offering concrete suggestions. Perhaps you can ask if they’re up for doing a wellness check, picking up your loved one’s mail, doing their laundry or ordering their groceries. 

And if friends or family are offering to pitch in, take them up on it, she advises. For example, maybe your friends want to set up a meal train or your siblings who live out of state are game for hanging out with your parent over Zoom for an hour while you take care of personal to-dos. “This is a big job, and if you can get help, get it so that you can be at your best when you are with your family member,” says McKnight. 

Hire professional help

Sometimes asking for help may also look like hiring a professional to step in. 

“In caring for my mom, feelings of resentment crept in when I missed being with my friends and family. I love my mom, but her physical limitations kept her from being able to attend family activities,” says Aileen Clancy Ruess of Fort Walton Beach, Florida, who has been a family caregiver for her mom, who had a stroke, for the past 14 years. 

To help, Ruess — who is also a certified geriatric care manager — scheduled a certified nursing assistant to care for her mom while she spent time with friends and family. Not only did it give her a chance to catch up with loved ones, but it “also has enriched the life of my mom, because she had ‘a fresh face’ to interact with and to spoil her when I could not be there.” 

Come up with a plan

Johnson-Young notes that planning ahead can help with resentment. She says this can include: 

  • Assigning roles and tasks for all the family and friends who are involved.
  • Finding a way to communicate, whether by group text or through another app, with extended friends and family so they’re all in the loop. 
  • Researching and talking through the ‘what-ifs, such as if your loved one might need more care or placement somewhere and even touching base with their doctor or your community’s office of aging to see what resources — such as medical equipment — are available.
  • Researching and implementing stress-relieving moves, like creating a family fund for a house cleaner or respite care

Find a safe place to vent

If you’re feeling overwhelmed or annoyed that your siblings won’t step up, Johnson-Young suggests connecting with an online support group, such as private groups on Facebook where your comments can only be seen by members, allowing you to discuss any issues openly. (Usually, you can search for these groups by topic — such as dementia caregivers — and ask to join. For others, you’ll need to be invited by a member.)  

“I find international groups are really great because when everyone here in the States is asleep, Europe is awake, so are parts of Australia and New Zealand,” says Johnson-Young. “All caregivers face the same stressors, and many times you will find some creative solutions, as well as a place to whine a bit.” 

Make time for yourself

While it might seem impossible to find a window for self-care, it’s imperative. “If caregivers do not take time for themselves each day, resentment builds and frustration is shared between the caregiver and their loved ones,” says Smirl. In other words, self-care doesn’t have to look like heading to a spa for a massage or going on a weekend getaway. Instead, Smirl recommends a slew of simple activities, like going for a walk, doing breathing exercises or even just sitting outside for a few minutes. 

Lean on social workers and other care providers 

McKnight advises talking with the other people on your loved one’s care team, such as social workers and nurses, as a way to help work through issues. “Sometimes people have dozens of family members but still feel alone,” she notes. “They need an outside perspective, someone like me, to suggest solutions.” 

She also recommends a family meeting, run by a professional like a social worker. “I’ve facilitated many family meetings, explaining to patients why they have to let their adult children change their soiled diaper or why they might need to allow other professionals in their home to help them while their child takes a break, takes a shower, catches up on work,” explains McKnight. “Sometimes I have to say, ‘Be nice to her. She’s taking care of you.’”  

“The little things make the best memories afterward. They can also lighten up a bad day.”

— JILL JOHNSON-YOUNG, A LICENSED CLINICAL SOCIAL WORKER

Shift your perspective

Johnson-Young often advises caregivers to keep a journal to write down positive, humorous or meaningful moments. “The little things make the best memories afterward,” she says. “They can also lighten up a bad day.” 

Felicia Gooden of Orange County, New York, was a caregiver for her mom, who had Parkinson’s disease, diabetes and arthritis, among other issues, for 10 years. “My entire journey as a caregiver was centered around doing what was best for my mom, making sure she got good care, and ensuring that all her wishes were fulfilled as best I could,” she recalls. “Moments of failure and hopelessness led to feelings of resentment, but remembering the mission kept me on track.” 

At the same time, don’t forget that despite its challenges, caregiving is also a blessing in that you’re the person your loved one trusts at one of their most vulnerable times in their lives, says Smirl. She advises, “Cherish each moment you have together and try to engage in activities together that can provide uplifting experiences.”