Breaking Caregiver Promises

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The Caring Generation® – Episode 132 April 6, 2022. Breaking caregiver promises isn’t easy. Caregiving expert Pamela D Wilson shares how to adjust personal goals with commitments to care for elderly parents, spouses, and loved ones. Caregiving promises aren’t only the promises you make to care for others—they include the promises you make to fulfill your needs as the caregiver. 

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Breaking caregiver promises isn’t easy. Caregiving promises might relate to a promise between spouses to care for each other in marriage vows—until death do us part. Or you might be a son or daughter promising mom, dad, grandma, or grandpa never to put them in a care community or a nursing home. You could be a friend making a promise to care for a friend.

Breaking Caregiver Promises

Watch More Videos About Caregiving and Aging on Pamela’s YouTube Channel

Breaking caregiver promises also means breaking the promise you made to yourself to pursue one or more life goals. Family caregivers with good intentions promise to care for loved ones because they have no idea what the future holds.

Uncertainty is certain for adult children and spouses who accept the role of a caregiver. Being prepared for the experience is unlikely unless prior experience exists as a family caregiver or a professional working in the healthcare industry.

Caregiving and Promise Making

What should caregivers know to balance caregiving responsibilities and promise-making? Read on to learn about:

  • The relationship between promises and feeling in control of life
  • When to acknowledge that it is time to break promises
  • How to realign or adjust your goals

If you have been a caregiver for some time, you may look back and realize you had no idea what to expect. Devoting time and making long-term personal sacrifices to care for another parent or someone else was not probably not at the top of your list of life goals.

Care Responsibilities Grow With Time

Caregiving experiences go off track. I remember my dad saying, “what was I thinking” when things didn’t go as expected. 

As time passes, caregiving responsibilities continue to grow instead of decreasing. Caregivers may feel overwhelmed or worried about not having the skills to care for an elderly parent whose health is continuing to worsen. 

As a caregiver, your physical and mental health may be suffering. As a result, you may lack the energy and motivation to manage aspects of your life and be a caregiver.

Caregivers Struggle to Find Support

You may have searched endlessly for community support options and come up with nothing that matches your situation. Struggles may exist trying to navigate the healthcare system. 

Some days, it all feels like too much, yet you worry about breaking caregiver promises. Wouldn’t life be much easier if, like at a job, you could write a letter of resignation and give two weeks’ notice to move on to a situation that you believe will be better for you? I know family caregivers who dream of doing just that.

Family Caregiver Relationships are Complicated

But unfortunately, family caregiver relationships and marriages are a little more complicated. Most caregivers feel responsible for caring for loved ones even when situations become more complex. Breaking caregiver promises can be where age differences can make commitments a little tricky. 

For example, lifespan differences between grandchildren caring for grandparents, adult children caring for parents, and spouses caring for spouses add to the complications. Lifespan means the amount of time a living organism has left. 

A simple example is that an 18-year-old has a longer lifespan than a grandma or grandpa who is 90. Lifespan makes a difference in goals, and the amount of control people feel they have over life situations. For example, a grandparent may think that a grandchild can take care of them for years because they are young, while an elderly parent may expect to move into their children’s home.

Caregiving Is a Choice

Caregiving responsibilities are life-changing. Everyone in a family has the right to choose. Whether you felt you did or not, you decided to be a caregiver through your actions.

Your siblings who may not want to help care for aging parents are making their decision. Making caregiver promises to do or not do something without a thorough discussion with aging parents can lead to many assumptions.

Even if you don’t know what can happen in care situations, you may not know how to have a detailed discussion with your parents. Knowing what to consider and what you might expect is an area where I help family caregivers through telephone and virtual consultations.

Life Is a Series of Changes Resulting in the Need for Care

Similarly, unexpected changes in health result in internal conflict for the care receiver. These feelings we carry around with us are based on our life experiences and how we respond and adapt to changing situations which sometimes means breaking caregiver promises.

Life from birth to death is a series of changes. Adult children and spouses become caregivers and make commitments and promises that change daily life and ongoing goals.

Caregivers may feel angry, resentful, helpless, hopeless, or burned out. Choosing to adapt by revising goals into different goals is a coping strategy.

Early Caregiver Commitments

breaking caregiver promises

In the early years of caregiving, caregivers may trade one goal for another, not thinking of the long-term consequences. For example, a daughter or son gives up a job to move closer to parents thinking that this caregiver assignment will be short-term, maybe six months or a year.

Mom or dad may have a terminal illness and are expected to die within six months. Instead, their health improves, and they graduate from hospice care. Now what?

Caregivers watch their life pass by—two, five, ten years later—career advancement at an okay job comes to a halt. The ability to earn and save income is negatively affected.

Maybe you wanted to get married and have children. This goal is off the table because of being past childbearing age. Plus, because of the time you dedicate to the care of a parent, you didn’t meet the love of your life.

Now the goals you had seem impractical or unattainable. It may be time to re-evaluate the caregiver promise you make.

Elderly Parents Grieve Losses

Elderly parents who have significant changes in health face similar goal losses as family caregivers. Mom or day may be frustrated because they can’t do the activities they could do before. As a result, they may have more days of feeling bad than good.

The first response by your parents about needing help may have been to attempt to remain independent by saying no thank you. But over time, their day-to-day reality confirms that they need assistance. Needing help can threaten the ego or self-esteem of anyone of any age.

How many of you want to need help versus enjoying having support or helping someone else? Accepting help is difficult for anyone who wants to be seen as self-sufficient, capable, or intelligent. Think of you at work. Is it easy for you to ask for help from co-workers, or do you hesitate because you want everyone to think you are competent to do your job?

How to Give Help

You may notice your parents struggling, yet they tell you they don’t want or need help. Agreement to accept help can depend upon how the assistance is offered and provided.

If you have tried to tell your parents what to do, you know that this may not work. The better route is to offer choices and explain the consequences.

Having choices works better, especially when a decision has to be made and you’re not sure what to do. Researching and offering options is one component of breaking caregiver promises. When you look at your life as a caregiver and the life of the person you care for, you are experiencing similar challenges in responding to and managing change, whether you realize it or not.

Adapting to Change

The way caregivers respond to change depends on life stage, goals, and willingness to adapt. Let’s talk about work opportunities to make this idea easy to consider. I will share two examples.

Example Person #1

Your career goal is to be an accountant, which means going to school to learn accounting and related courses. You start this way and realize halfway through college that you thought you would love accounting, but you don’t like working with numbers as much as you thought.

You want to finish college, so you decide to change your focus to becoming a high school teacher. You complete your degree and take the steps necessary to get a teaching job. Then you think, I like this. Maybe teaching at the college level would be something I would like.

So you continue working and attending school part-time to obtain your master’s degree. Another change, another shift, another adaptation. But it works for you because you are motivated, have the energy, and want to continue to learn.

This isn’t to say that you didn’t struggle with a class or two in the middle of this adventure. Or that there were not times when you didn’t think you could continue doing both, working and going to school.

Accomplishing goals is not always easy. Along the way, you learned how to deal with missed expectations and a few failures. You may have modified how you look at situations, changed your behavior, or adjusted your perspective.

Somewhere along the way, you learned how to persist, stay interested in learning, and manage through emotional ups and downs. Obtaining your master’s degree to teach at the college level was a long road, but you considered and committed to the long-term gain and traded time for self-development instead of going on vacation every year or buying a new car like some of your friends.

Example Person #2

You gave up pursuing a college education in favor of full-time work. Now you look back, realizing that your advancement potential is limited because a college degree is required to be considered for the next position you want.

Attending college part-time to get a degree might take years. You are more of a hands-on person and don’t like book learning. You like your job and decide to stay put without pursuing a promotion. So you decide to put your effort into coaching your son’s baseball team at school.

What insights can be gained from these two examples that relate to breaking caregiver promises? The first lesson from person #1  is about having a focused goal and being single-minded about pursuing the goal while dealing with ups and downs. This person may be better at navigating the continually changing caregiving landscape because of not having any hesitation to ask for help or learn.

Both individuals may realize the benefits of delayed gratification. For example, working hard to accomplish a future goal by giving up some things today. For person #1, this is a college education to be able to teach at the college level. For person #2, this is prioritizing time with a son instead of pursuing a career goal.

There is No One Right Way

In the examples above, each person succeeded in modifying a goal. A classic term for this type of modification through the action of revising an expectation is disengagement. Disengagement means separating from or releasing an attachment to a plan or outcome.

Both individuals succeeded in disengaging and re-engaging even though their goals and approach differed. These examples relate to approaching caregiving responsibilities.

There is no one right way— even though some caregivers who want everything done their way might disagree. The same applies to elderly parents who may approach their care needs differently. Each side has a right to their opinions and how they want to live.

Positive Coping Strategies for Breaking Caregiver Promises

As long as coping strategies exist to respond to the changes, potential downsides, and outcomes, breaking caregiver promises can be positive. Problems arise when individuals feel like they are fighting a losing battle to accomplish something. Caregivers may continue to struggle rather than revise the strategy or the goal.

This isn’t to say that giving up a dream is the only way. But sometimes, we have to be realistic about our abilities and practical about events we control and others we do not control.

For family caregivers, this can mean that a lot of your life seems uncertain because you may be delaying decisions based on the health of elderly parents, a spouse, or someone else. If you are trying to decide whether to stay all in or make a change, look at the output of your efforts.

What are you getting back from your efforts? Is the result positive, or is there an ongoing struggle that might hold a lesson of change for you?

When It May Be Time to Break Promises

Are you a caregiver who jumped feet first into a care situation without a formal conversation about care responsibilities, time commitments, and so on? It’s okay. Becoming a caregiver usually begins with some type of crash—a heart attack or a 3 am call from a parent.

How do you know when it’s time to revise your goals and expectations to make a different plan?

While considering making any change may have you feeling uncomfortable, it may be best for everyone involved.

Elderly parents can be used to a routine that has been stable for years. In this case, a parent’s tendency may be to reject any type of change and react negatively. However, if you are a caregiver who is emotionally burned out and experiencing physical health issues, a change in the situation may be necessary.

When parents are so focused on their needs, they can’t see how anyone else, especially the caregiver, may be affected. Caregivers in these situations can have difficulty acknowledging that they may be going through the day-to-day motions but may not be providing appropriate care for a parent anymore.

A Positive Mindset Supports Change

breaking caregiver promisesFamily caregivers have good intentions, but the state of physical and emotional health should not be discounted or deprioritized. Caregivers are not always proactive in taking care of their health or going to doctors.

If you are a caregiver who has delayed life events that are important to you, recognize your contributions to caring for a loved one and take steps to move forward.

Do the best you can to set goals and create a plan. At the same time, research alternative care situations for parents.

Where do you start? The first step to moving forward from breaking caregiver promises is to prepare mentally for the future. Without the right mindset and motivation, you will remain stuck. Like a gym routine to improve body strength, you may need to create a mindset routing that includes positive thinking and motivation.

While the tendency may be to dwell on frustration or anger resulting from a caregiving relationship— stop. Negative thinking will keep you down instead of raising you to a place where your mind only sees future possibilities.

Family Caregivers Need a Plan

Like in the two examples we discussed in the first part of the program, caregivers need motivational goals. When you are down about a care situation, it can be challenging to find motivation.

What is it you want to change or accomplish? Have you written a step-by-step plan to make this happen? How confident are you that you can achieve the goal based on experience and knowledge?

If you don’t have your plan in writing or lack confidence, go back to the drawing board until you have a well-thought-out plan and the confidence to work through the change. Are you 100% committed?

How will you respond to uncertainties that arise as you work through this plan? Are you willing to ask for help and do the necessary research, including learning new things?

Making significant changes takes work and effort. You have to be willing to do whatever it takes. Change doesn’t happen without the person initiating or wanting the change being open to all options.

Disengage and Re-Engage Quickly

How many of you have heard the saying when you close one door, another opens? Likewise, moving through change and setting new goals involves the process of disengaging and re-engaging.

The faster you can reconcile giving up one goal to define and pursue another dream—while throwing yourself 100% into the pursuit—the quicker you will progress. But, first, you have to free up your mind and your brain to think differently.

Being practical and realistic about what you can accomplish is critical. It can be challenging to accept that a current caregiving relationship or situation isn’t working out as much as you would like. However, change doesn’t mean you are abandoning your loved one.

Making changes can mean that you are changing how care is provided so that all of the work does not fall on you. Setting a goal and not getting there can result in feeling disappointed or stuck.

If you have experienced failure, you may be hesitant to initiate changes. Don’t allow your past experiences to control your future.

Why Moving Forward Can Be Positive

The best path to manage through breaking caregiver promises is to establish sequential steps for progress for you and your elderly parent. For example, X is what you will continue to do for the caregiving relationship. Y is the agreement of your parents toward a goal they define.

Caregivers and care receivers should commit to how they will support their health, well-being, and everyday life. The challenge may be that your parent is not interested in participating in change due to poor health, not feeling well, no energy, lack of motivation, or unwillingness to change or learn.

A parent or spouse’s unwillingness to change does not mean that you are stuck unless there are extraordinary circumstances like being financially dependent on parents or a spouse for money.

Creating and working out a plan may take more effort if this is the situation.

However, if the care of your loved one is at risk because you are burned out, sick, and exhausted, there is a responsibility to initiate some type of change. While caregivers may want the best for aging parents, pushing mom or dad to take actions that they don’t wish to participate in can cause more damage or stress to the caring relationship.

Acknowledging Abusive Care Situations

Equally important is that I want to acknowledge care situations where parents are verbally abusive to family caregivers. These can be impossible situations for children who try to do their best but are constantly criticized or berated for their actions.

Parents may complain that their children are not constantly available, are not doing enough or doing the right things, and so on.

This abusive situation can be more demanding if a parent has a mental illness or cognitive impairment like Alzheimer’s disease or dementia. In this case, the breaking caregiver promises goal may be to create a new environment for both the caregiver and the parent.

An environment where the parent receives care from professional caregivers in the home or a care community may be a better option. This situation can remove a son or daughter from day-to-day care activities and maintain the family connection.

Unbalanced Caregiving Relationships Benefit from Change

 Being a caregiver can result in an unbalanced relationship between adult children, spouses, and care receivers. In care situations, it is not always possible to want the same things or have the same goals as the people we care for because of where we are in the life stage.

Elderly parents may be winding down their goals because they may only have another 5 or 10 years to live, while the caregiver feels like many things remain to be accomplished.

If this is the situation with the person you care for, the best you can do is help loved ones adjust to workable goals. For the caregiver, this might feel like defeat because you may see the reflection of your work and effort as the well-being of your parents.

The results of your parent’s experience may be partly due to caregiver involvement, but there is a point when another person’s quality of life and health is out of your control. In this situation, the caregiver and the care receiver must avoid blame for the care plan not working out as hoped or expected.

Do your best to avoid disappointment and realize that it is okay to set and revise goals based on life situations at the time. Keep moving ahead, knowing that there will be setbacks and potential losses. If you want to— have a good cry—and then find a way to regroup to get back on the path toward your goal.

Remain Emotionally Strong and Seek Support if Needed

family caregiver support programsMost of all, commit to becoming and staying emotionally strong. Maintain a high level of self-esteem to win against whatever odds you feel you might be facing.

While significant life changes can be scary, the result can exceed your expectations when you create a plan and remain positive. Never give up on your goals or dreams. Keep them with you through all stages of life so that you can weather the ups and downs.


Looking For Help With Your Caregiving Situation? Learn More About Scheduling an Elder Care Consultation With Pamela D Wilson

©2022 Pamela D. Wilson All Rights Reserved.

About Pamela Wilson

PAMELA D. WILSON, MS, BS/BA, NCG, CSA helps caregivers and aging adults solve caregiving problems and manage caregiving needs through online programs, live support groups, and an extensive caregiving library that includes articles, podcasts, videos, and webinars.

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