There was a time when I wore a message button daily. I wore it more to remind myself of the message than anyone else reading it. Sometimes I wore it on the outside of my dress and sometimes on the inside of my coat. It was my guide. It helped me say “no.” The message on the button read, “Extreme stress is when your mouth smiles and says, ‘I’d be happy to,’ while your brain is screaming ‘No, I can’t do this.'”
Last week I wrote about how our expectations of what we can do need to be realistic. What we are capable of doing changes with age, stress and circumstances. The expectations others have of our abilities do not change. And so, what we did 20 years ago is what continues to be expected of us. (And, unfortunately, is something we may expect of ourselves as well).
Dad may anticipate the same caring as he becomes ill that you gave Mom when she needed you 15 years ago. The problem is that you can no longer deliver in the same way. Yet for many reasons we agree to these expectations, pushing ourselves beyond our capabilities. The result is that both the caregiver and care-recipient pay the price and neither gets what he or she anticipated.
Resentment comes when your mouth says, “Yes” in direct defiance of your brain. Anger is an inevitable outgrowth of that resentment. And that anger will find a way to come out. It will find a release and will be directed at the person whom you resent, the one who is sick, who is also the one you love and want to care for.
The anger will also come out to those nearest and dearest to you; your children, spouse, parents, siblings, etc. It will hurt and it will destroy. The anger will be seen in sudden and unexpected harsh words that come out of your mouth. If the words are not harsh, the tone will be. And as if you are watching some stranger, you will wonder who you have become.
The anger may come in the form of negative looks and often minor (and sometimes major) excessive use of physical care. Transferring a person from a bed to a chair requires strength. You might have done it easily 15 years ago, but now, with your bad back and oncoming age, it seems to be harder to do. It seems almost impossible.
Being angry with yourself because your ability to care has diminished, you suddenly find yourself pushing when you use to place, being abrasive when you used to be gentle, holding on tighter than is needed when you support, frowning when you used to smile and your directions suddenly sound like demeaning comments. These minor and not so minor transgressions do no go unnoticed. You notice them and get upset with yourself and the person you are caring for notices them. Worse still, the sick person knows they are the cause of this behavior, this anger, and this resentment. Whether it is a spouse, a parent or a child, knowing they are responsible for your obvious misery doesn’t make them happy.
Once you have reached that point of resentment, after care giving for perhaps years or even decades, the reality is that your loved ones may be getting assistance at your hands, but not your care.
We fear institution placement and feel guilty when we get others to do what we feel we should be doing, knowing the care of our loved ones will be sterile and from strangers. But once we have pushed ourselves beyond our limits and have reached the point of anger, isn’t sterile care and smiles from strangers better than resentful care and emotional abuse from us?
Isn’t our inability to acknowledge our diminishing capacity as the years go by, causing more harm to everyone, including ourselves? Can it possibly be putting the ones we are caring for at risk and our own health in jeopardy? Who is being helped when you do all the driving, even when you can no longer see clearly at night? Can you afford to have your only bathroom closed to you for an hour each morning and night while your spouse is being readied, when you are suffering from the incontinence that comes with aging?
Taking responsibility for our limitations does not mean we say “no!” to caring for our loved ones and just walk away. It does mean finding a way that accommodates both the caregiver and the person needing care. The first step is realizing what your limits are − both your physical limits and your psychological ones. Then you must accept these limits and plan accordingly. What other safe choice do you have?
Determining what the specific needs that the person you are caring for require, is the second step. Third is to accept that you do not need to be the one who is meeting all the needs all the time. Help can be hired or volunteered. Hiring help and even looking at placement for respite or full time care, when the person you are caring for is only causing pain for everyone, may be the best option. Some specific examples of how to do this will be offered next week.
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