I work with many caregivers who feel trapped by the role of caregiving. I help and support many older adult care receivers who also feel trapped by caregiving; trapped in aging and weak bodies, trapped by the idea of needing care and trapped by situations that in their opinion are less than ideal.
William Shakespeare said, “There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.” What is it about the idea of caregiving that makes it good or bad, positive or negative?
How might the act of caregiving be compared to the act of volunteering? Those of us who volunteer do so for several reasons: we believe in a cause, we want to do something to benefit others and volunteering makes us feel good. Most of the time when we volunteer, the people or causes we support thank us. This appreciation makes us feel good about volunteering so we give even more of our time and more of our money. We are happy to give.
Caregiving often begins with the idea of implied consent. A parent asks an adult child to complete a task to pick up a prescription or wash a load of laundry. Without thinking the adult child completes the task by acting in the role of caregiver and leading the parent to presume that if the adult child agrees to complete two projects they will continue to provide more and more support.
By contrast, volunteering usually involves a discussion and an agreement about a time period, specific skills and a financial commitment. When a family member begins caregiving, they unintentionally volunteer for a position that may last for years with no definition of time, skill or financial commitment and no formal caregiving agreement.
Might caregiving be viewed as a trap because appreciation and thankfulness are frequently absent in caregiving relationships? Is the caregiving trap supported by the idea of feeling burdened by the expectations of family members? Does the role of caregiving involve continual requests for help with no definitive end in sight? Most of us are able to sustain through extremely difficult situations for a brief period of time. The reality is that caregiving may go on for years.
Does caregiving have to be a trap? Not if families are willing to openly discuss the challenges, be flexible, accept opposing opinions and work together. Accepting the reality that it is always not possible to meet a parent’s expectations is also very important. Caregivers are allowed and encouraged to have personal boundaries about providing care. For example when a loved one becomes incontinent or is awake all night this may mean that it is time to consider in home care or assisted living. If a parent lives at a distance and requires care it is unlikely that children 2,000 miles away will be able to show up to manage unexpected emergencies.
As much as family members may want to be helpful, having conversations to avoid the caregiving trap is important to preserve family relationships. Ignoring or delaying decisions may result in extremely limited options and less than ideal solutions.