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9 tips for coping with remote caregiver guilt

Isabella Yosuico
March 20, 2018

When it comes to caring for our aging parents, many of us struggle with feelings of guilt, and those feelings can be greatly amplified by distance. Am I visiting, calling, doing enough? Sometimes parents can themselves--knowingly or unknowingly--contribute to these emotions, complaining about your absence or sounding pitiful each time you call.

A 2009 National Alliance of Caregiving study found that about 15 percent of caregivers live more than an hour away. Even under the best of circumstances, caregiving is often accompanied by a sense of guilt. Being far away just intensifies those feelings.

"Caregiving from a distance can be challenging because you're not physically present to care for a loved one on a daily basis, and this can cause feelings of guilt," remarks Jill Martinelli, LCSW and Senior Care Advisor at Care.com. "However, it's important to understand that it's okay to have these feelings; it's how you address feelings of guilt that will impact your experience as a caregiver."

Dr. Alexis Abramson, 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, says that caregiver guilt is not only common, but is extremely destructive, making an already stressful situation even more challenging. It can make you feel tired, weak and immobile, explains Dr. Abramson, which in turn makes you less effective, not to mention unhappier.

Here's some practical guidance about facing and coping with the guilt that often comes with caregiving from a distance.

1. Accept

Recognize that feelings of inadequacy and guilt are normal. Allow yourself to acknowledge these emotions, so you can process them and let them go. Know what your strengths are as a long distance caregiver, but 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," said Dr. 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."

2. Reach out

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. It will help alleviate any thoughts of guilt that can often drive a deeper wedge between you and your parent.

3. Redefine "caring"

While you may not be able to be there physically, recognize that what you can do from a distance does matter. You need to be realistic about what you can do and what is good enough. Work with your parent to identify what you can and cannot do, and find ways to fill the gaps that matter most to mom or dad, by possibly hiring a senior caregiver.

4. Reconcile

If there are old wounds, forgive your parent and 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. Longstanding resentments and unresolved issues can worsen guilty feelings. Now may be the time to finally set those riffs aside or have a heart-to-heart that focuses on your part of the hurt, knowing that the past can't be undone and that your parent needs you. ( » Learn how to navigate the most common sibling arguments when it comes to caring for aging parents)

5. Be supportive

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 guilt prevent you from reaching out with loving support.

6. Focus on love, not duty

While we do have an obligation to help care for an elderly parent, try to be motivated by love and compassion, rather than by obligation. Caregiving can be a positive experience, as it can redefine a relationship with a parent or strengthen relationships with siblings. It can enhance your feelings of wellbeing and help diffuse feelings of guilt. Reflect on the Golden Rule, and treat your parent as you'd like to be treated, which can also be a powerful example for your own kids.

7. Inspire independence

As your mom or dad age and become 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. Let go of any belief that you and your parents' worlds have to be completely intertwined. None of you need that burden. It's genuinely healthy for your parent to make a life for themselves, no matter how old they are, so it's better than okay to let go of the responsibility of being your parent's everything.

8. Have 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 specializing 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 diffusing guilt.

"My mother is now in a place where she is confused at times and can be very demanding," explains 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. Use supports

Whether you connect with a Geriatric Care Manager, a religious organization, a nice neighbor or a senior care advisor, there are ways to provide additional care 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 Eldercare Locator to find your local AAA.

And don't forget to take care of 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.

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