10 ways to manage guilt when caring for elderly parents from afar

10 ways to manage guilt when caring for elderly parents from afar

Even under the best of circumstances, caregiving is an overwhelming task. Add being far away from the loved one you’re caring for, and, well, that can add tremendous weight to your already heavy load. If you’re contending with this weight, just know you’re not alone: About 11% of caregivers live more than an hour away from their loved one, according to a 2015 National Alliance for Caregiving study.

“Caregivers can keep in touch to the best of their ability to cope with feelings of not doing enough,” says Brittany Ferri, OTR/L, CCTP, an occupational therapist specializing in geriatric care based in Rochester, New York. “They can also practice gratitude to help engage positivity and feelings of fulfillment. Caregivers may often feel like they can do more and this can cause ruminating thoughts. In this instance, they may benefit from practicing positive self-care and self-talk along with their loved one to keep the lines of communication open while relieving stress.”

It’s also key to be kind to yourself as you navigate the caregiving spectrum. As a nationally recognized expert on aging, television personality, speaker and author of several books, including “The Caregivers Survival Handbook, Home Safety for Seniors and The 55+ Fact Book,” Alexis Abramson, Ph.D., says caregiver guilt can be destructive. The emotional burden may make you feel tired, weak and immobile, says Abramson, which, in turn, makes you less effective, not to mention unhappier.

Here's some practical guidance on facing and coping with the guilt that comes with being a remote caregiver. 

1. Accept that you will feel guilt at times

Feel like you should be doing more? That’s OK. We all do. Acknowledge these emotions associated with guilt, process them and work to let them go. That may seem easier said than done, but it helps to know what your strengths are as a long-distance caregiver and also accept that there are real limits to what you can do from afar.

"No matter how much you already do, there are most likely times when you tell yourself that you could be doing even more," says Abramson. "Accept these feelings of guilt. Without recognition, guilt can be a debilitating force. Know where these feelings come from and be aware that you're not alone in having such thoughts."

In the psychology world, there’s something called “compassion fatigue.” In a nutshell, it’s caring so much that you’re left feeling stressed, heartbroken and exhausted. Here are the first steps to accepting guilt to avoid this sort of emotional fatigue:

  • Decide whether or not the guilt you are feeling is deserved. What, if anything, did you do wrong?

  • Find out what you can do differently in the future to correct the situation.

  • Learn from the past, but keep an eye toward the present. Try to help a loved one in ways you might not have been able to before, but keep in mind that you’re only one person and only capable of so much.

2. Come up with a communication plan

You may not be able to visit your loved one regularly, but call, arrange a video chat, write or find other personal ways to show you care. Don’t be afraid to talk to your parent about realistic expectations for how you can help. 

“The frequency of contact is dependent on the type and level of care needed,” says Iris Waichler, MSW, LCSW, and author of “Role Reversal, How to Take Care of Yourself and Your Aging Parents.” “It should be a collaborative decision, if possible, rather than a unilateral mandate from the caregiver. The communication can be by phone or email, depending on the abilities of those involved.” 

For example, if your loved one isn’t email savvy, this particular method of communication isn’t an option. 

Waichler says check-ins should initially occur at least weekly and recommends coming up with a plan for communication which can be reassessed after a month or so.

3. Redefine ‘caring’

While you may not be able to be there physically, take solace in the fact that what you can do from a distance matters. Identifying what you’re best equipped to handle is another discussion to have with an elderly parent. The next step is finding ways to fill the gaps that matter most to your loved one, possibly by hiring a senior caregiver

Waichler points out that, among families, there can be a lot of judgment and finger-pointing when one person thinks that another is handling a situation incorrectly or perhaps not doing enough. To make everyone’s role in the caregiving process crystal clear, she suggests making a definitive outline of everyone’s “jobs,” so to speak, in the ongoing care of a loved one. 

Again, potential members of the caregiving team need to be realistic about what they can and can't do and the frequency of their involvement. If there are obvious gaps, other caregiver support team members should be recruited.

4. Reconcile issues from the past

Longstanding resentments and unresolved issues can worsen remote caregiver guilt. If there are old wounds, it’s time to forgive and/or seek forgiveness. Maybe dad wasn't home much when you were a child, and there's still some lingering hurt. Maybe mom seemed to favor a younger sister, who isn't available to help shoulder caregiving duties. Now may be the time to finally set those rifts aside or have a heart-to-heart, knowing that the past can't be undone and that your parent needs you. 

Ferri says if your loved one is cognitively up to the task, you could see a mental health counselor or therapist together. 

“If your loved one refuses to participate in counseling, you may try sitting down and having an open discussion with them,” says Ferri. “Avoid accusing or becoming angry, as this may alienate your loved one. If your loved one is unable to participate in any of these practices, seek the advice of a therapist to work through your own emotions.” 

5. Support the primary caregiver

If another sibling lives close by and handles most of the caregiving, your guilt may be multiplied. Perhaps your sibling is resentful of your distance or maybe you truly long to be closer and more helpful. Support the primary caregiver with words of encouragement, a listening ear and financial support, if possible. Don't let shame prevent you from reaching out with loving support. 

In an effort to ease the burden of just one primary caregiver, Waichler thinks it’s helpful if relatives come together to discuss each person’s skill set and how their strongest attributes can make them the ideal candidate for a specific role in the overall spectrum of care. 

“For example, if you have medical knowledge, you can work with healthcare providers,” she says. “Someone with financial knowledge can help with insurance or medical claims.”

Allow the person receiving the care to be privy to these conversations, so they feel they have a say in the way their care is being provided and will know who to turn to for help with a specific issue.

Carol Gee, an author living in Atlanta, says she knows firsthand what it’s like to experience guilt about elderly parents living far away. When her father, who lives in Virginia, suffered a fall, he finally realized he could no longer live alone. Gee’s sister lived three hours away from their father’s small town. Finding an assisted living facility was imperative in their situation.

“Together, we both found him an assisted living facility that was affordable by his pensions and one we liked,” says Gee. “At the time, my sister was serving in the Armed Forces and a single parent with a small child, so she didn’t have extra funds to help financially. She agreed to be the one to physically monitor the home.”

While her sister made surprise visits, cut dad’s hair and supervised his living needs, Gee funded extras like clothes and special treats. 

“I called weekly, speaking to the nurses and to him to see how things were,” she says. “While I experienced periodic guilt for being so far away, our goal was to try to keep as much the same for our father as possible.”

6. Focus on love, not duty

Do your best to be motivated by love and compassion versus obligation. Caregiving can be a positive experience, as it can redefine a relationship with a parent or strengthen relationships with siblings. Maybe it’s time to dig up old family photos to inspire memory sharing that will remind everyone why you’re here and why you want to help. 

“Older adults often enjoy handwritten notes and letters, so writing may be the kind and personal touch that your loved one needs,” says Ferri. “You can find old pictures or mementos to include in notes to remind them of positive times. Brief calls to check in are thoughtful ways to show you care several times throughout the week. Notes or other mailed items may be good once per month.”

She says reconnecting with positive memories can enhance your own well-being as a caregiver and also defuse feelings of guilt.

7. Inspire independence

As your loved one ages and becomes dependent on others, they may begin to feel more vulnerable and start doubting their own self-sufficiency. Help alleviate those feelings by encouraging your parents to connect with friends, explore new hobbies and enjoy their current life. 

To keep life consistent for their father, Gee and her sister found an assisted living facility in his neighborhood. This, in turn, allowed a certain amount of independence while receiving the care he needed.

“Already forced to leave his home, we wanted him to still be able to attend his church, keep his bank where the tellers knew him, and in a place where relatives could stay with him in an emergency until my sister could get there,” she says. 

8. Set healthy boundaries

Your mom, dad, family or friends may say or do things that seem to provoke guilt. Don't engage them. Listen, love and redirect the conversation to a neutral topic.

Carolyn Childerston is an author, speaker and therapist who specializes in counseling women over 40, many of whom struggle with caregiver issues. She has also been a remote caregiver herself, first for her dad and, more recently, for her mom.

Childerston says that "selective hearing" can be a strong ally in managing expectations and defusing guilt. 

"My mother is now in a place where she is confused at times and can be very demanding," says Childerston. "I tell clients to listen for the underlying true needs that may impact health and well-being and not be overwhelmed by mom or dad's urgency or sometimes unreasonable wants."

9. Create a care community

There’s a classic saying that it takes a village to raise a child, and the same ideology holds true when caring for an aging parent. This isn’t a job for only one person. You and your loved one will benefit from creating a community of care. Whether you connect with a compassionate professional caregiver, a religious organization, a neighbor or a senior care advisor, there are ways to provide additional assistance for a loved one from a distance and gain peace of mind.

Start by contacting a nearby Area Agency on Aging (AAA) for helpful resources, such as meal delivery programs, community outreach, senior centers and public services. You can use the Eldercare Locator to find your local AAA.

10. Make time for yourself

It may feel like the impossible, but it’s hard to be a good caregiver when your own wellness tank is empty. 

“Make time for yourself to recharge,” Waichler says. “It will make you a better caregiver for others. Show yourself compassion when guilty feelings arise. Be kind to yourself.”

Talk with close friends, siblings and other family members about your feelings, find a caregiver support group or get professional help if you're overwhelmed. Caring for an elderly parent can feel like a lonely job, but there are others who are in the same situation and ready to lend a hand or ear.

Tips and stories from parents and caregivers who’ve been there.

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