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Letting go of caregiver responsibilities also means letting go of guilt

by Patricia LaCroix

I’m my father’s only child. When my mother died in December 2009, there was no question as to what was to happen next. As a dutiful daughter, I invited my father to live with me and my family. On Christmas Eve, he moved in.

My dad was in his late 80s at the time. He could walk — but barely. Stairs were out of the question. All of our bedrooms were on the second floor. So I converted my first floor living room into a bedroom for my father, and proudly, I moved him into our home.

Wanting to care for Dad

I was proud. As an adoptee, I was especially appreciative of everything my wonderful parents had done for me over the years — loving me and caring for me — and now it was time for me to repay my father for all he had done. I wanted to do this for him.

Initially, Dad was fairly self-sufficient. He could use the bathroom on his own. He could make himself a simple lunch. He would unload and load the dishwasher, as his way of doing his part around the house. He’d watch TV or read books to entertain himself. As always, he was my confidant and advisor, and we enjoyed our talks and time together.

But it’s quite amazing how quickly things can change for someone who is up in age. About a year after he first moved in, again on Christmas Eve, my father collapsed to the floor on the way to the bathroom. My husband and I were at my in-laws at the time. Thankfully, my children were home with him, and my oldest child called 911 for an ambulance. My father had a urinary tract infection, and after that trip to the hospital, life was never the same for him. He was bedridden for months. Less than a year later, he suffered congestive heart failure, and after that trip to the hospital, he never walked again. And having lost the ability to walk, he could no longer use the bathroom by himself.

I would jokingly tell him, “When you’re in diapers, my job is done!” But I obviously wasn’t serious, because there I was when the time came, changing his diapers. I couldn’t bare the thought of placing Dad into a nursing home. Besides… Wasn’t this what I was supposed to be doing? I was his daughter! His only daughter. It was my job… My lot in life.

But it wasn’t my job. I had a job. Actually, I had my own business. I worked (as I still do) from home as a graphic artist and writer. I love what I do and find it quite fulfilling. I truly believe that my work exercises my God-given talents, and with education publishing as my biggest niche, I always have felt that my career had some higher importance and meaningful purpose — that is, helping children.

Beyond my work, I had my family: a new husband, along with two children from my previous marriage — a teenaged daughter and a middle-school son with autism. They all relied on me to continue my role as a very traditional wife and mom.

A little too much

It didn’t take long to realize I was in over my head. The hardest  and most exhausting part of caring for my father was nighttime. Getting Dad ready for bed was very time consuming and physical. Once he was put to bed, the caregiver role didn’t end for me. My father would call out for me nearly every night, at all  hours of the night, not only waking up me but also my son. “Mom!” he would shout from his bedroom. “Grandpa’s calling you again!” He’d call me if he had a strange dream, if he needed his oxygen cannula put back on, if he needed a drink of water. Having my father live with me was like caring for an infant who was still getting up for nightly feedings. The only difference was that, after two or three months, the infant would eventually sleep through the night. My father, on the other hand, would be continuing this nightly routine indefinitely.

Also, an infant wouldn’t have talked back to me. If I didn’t do things exactly as Dad wanted, I’d hear about it. “Don’t put my diaper on that way. Tighten it more! Don’t pull my shirt over my head like that. Get me a cup so I can spit! Not that cup… Hurry up!” Once he actually said as I was tending to his needs, “If you are going to baby me… Baby me the right way!” Being spoken to condescendingly, as if I were stupid and could do nothing right, was emotionally draining. I remained as patient as I could, and I bit my tongue… but his words still hit me in the heart.

I needed help, and I knew it. I couldn’t continue working and helping to put a roof over my family’s heads and food on our table, while still being a mom and a wife, and yet, also being my father’s caregiver.

I needed a break. I needed to recharge my batteries, so to speak. I needed a vacation, a chance to get away. I needed some sleep! I was at my wit’s end. But there was no way a senior in my father’s shape could be left alone.

Seeking help, finding guilt

So I hired at-home caregivers. Initially, Dad was not happy about it. He wanted me and me alone to care for him. He made no bones about it.

In return, I felt guilt. It was dished out by Dad, and it was also delivered by me to myself. I felt bad! I couldn’t help but wonder what was wrong with me for not being able to do more by myself. There were many times when the caregivers were there in my home, and I couldn’t help but think, “I should be going over there, helping her help Dad,” or “I really should have washed those dishes before the caregiver came over today,” or “Maybe I should get Dad that glass of water he’s yelling for,” or “Maybe I should make Dad lunch instead of having the caregiver do it.”

How accepting help changed things for the better

But this guilt was so unfounded. It took time, but I came to realize that asking for and hiring help was not only for my own good, but for my father’s. It was out of love that I hired help. In the end, it made so much sense! By hiring at-home caregivers, I was able to:

  • Keep Dad with me. Without a doubt, I could no longer take care of Dad by myself. The only other option would have been to have him live elsewhere. Having at-home caregivers allowed me to keep Dad at home longer.
  • Control my emotions. It’s easy to get angry and resentful when you have to care for a loved one. Being able to take a break allowed me to keep those feelings in check.
  • Be a better caregiver. I still cared for my father. Sometimes I took on the “morning shift,” often I did the “night shift,” and most often, I made dinner, for him and the rest of my family. But when the caregivers were over, I explained to my dad, “I’m not here, now, Dad. The caregiver is in charge of you.” Typically, I put in my work hours and tended to my business. Being able to take the occasional break allowed me to refresh myself both physically and mentally, to better serve my dad when it was my turn to be caregiver.
  • Be my father’s daughter. I know that sounds funny, but it was difficult to just sit and converse with my father as his daughter when I had to constantly be his caregiver too. I had already spent a good hunk of the day caring for him. The desire to just “be” with him waned under the weight of the caregiving time. Now, free of the constraints of caregiving, I can love him and spend time with him without any ill feelings.

A few months later, my husband was diagnosed with cancer (and has since passed away). As much as I loved my father, I could not simultaneously care for him and still “be there” for my husband. Thanks to the at-home caregivers, I was able to leave my father in their most capable hands, while I attended chemotherapy sessions with my ill husband. I noted sadly when I was at the cancer center with my husband that most of the cancer patients were alone during their treatment. How blessed both my late husband and I felt that I could be there with him during the sessions, and that could have only happened with the help I received from the at-home caregivers! We even managed to go on one last big trip — a vacation to Charleston, South Carolina — thanks to their help. Dad didn’t make that an easy exit for me, as he tried to “guilt me” out of going on vacation. But I knew with great confidence that he was in good hands and would be just fine. And of course, he was!

Utilizing everyone’s unique talents

I truly believe everyone has their own unique talents and gifts. For me, while I was a decent caregiver and did it joyfully for the most part, I humbly bow to the men and women who are truly gifted as caregivers. This belief helped me come to this conclusion: I am morally obligated to make sure that my father is well cared for; however, I do not have to directly do the caregiving. Realizing this fact helped me release the guilt, as I feel secure in my belief that I am still taking care of my dad and fulfilling my obligation to him and God. And thanks to these wonderful, skilled caregivers, I am doing so in the best way possible.

Letting go of the guilt — not easy, but necessary

I’ll admit it — letting go of the guilt while letting in other caregivers is not easy to do. It takes what author Stephen Covey called a “paradigm shift” — looking at a situation with a totally different (and usually not “natural”) perspective. It requires active thought and soul searching. But it can be done, and by doing so, you as the caregiver will not only lose the guilt — you will gain peace.

Patricia LaCroix is a writer, the owner of her own business (LaCroix Creative), mom to Ana and Daniel, significant other to Jack, and loving daughter of her 93-year-old father, Eugene.

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