The transition from home to senior living can be difficult for an aging parent. But what about family caregivers? They have to adapt to the new situation as well. Relinquishing the day-to-day caregiving of a parent to an assisted living, memory care, or skilled nursing staff is easier said than done. Many family caregivers find themselves grappling with feelings of guilt, anxiety, and emptiness in their lives. How can family members make such a transition so that they feel good about their parents’ care while also gaining a new sense of self and purpose in their lives?
When Transition Is Necessary
The transition is often easier if your family, including your parent, makes the decision for a transition to senior living together. Your parent may have been living alone, in which case a transition to assisted living may be the best way to assure that there is always someone on-site to meet his or her needs. It’s also comforting to know that your parent has access to daily group activities and won’t be experiencing the effects of social isolation.
There are many instances in which a move may be necessitated by cognitive or physical decline. If your parent has advanced Alzheimer’s disease, for instance, you may have to face the hard reality that a move to memory care is the best solution. If your parent has a serious or progressive medical condition, a move to skilled nursing may be the only way to meet his or her constant need for care.
As an adult son or daughter, you may feel particularly aggrieved by the transition if your parent lived in your home for a period of time. You may have feelings of guilt or inadequacy that you are no longer able to provide the care that your parent needs. In the case of memory care, your parent may not understand why a transition was necessary. You may be confronted with questions of “Why am I here?” or “Why can’t I live with you?” This can drive the adult child to feel intense guilt and anguish.
Even loved ones with physical maladies may question why they can no longer live in their son or daughter’s home. Family members may need to answer: “Because the people here are trained medical professionals who are in a better position to care for you than I am.” You may have to repeat that statement several times—not only for your parent’s benefit but for your own benefit as well.
Vanquish the Negative Emotions
The most useless emotion in this scenario is guilt. In her book, The Caregiving Trap: Solutions for Life’s Unexpected Changes, author Pamela Wilson writes that guilt often occurs when adult children have made a promise to keep a parent at home, but that promise cannot be kept when the parent’s needs surpass the caregiver’s abilities. “Guilt clouds good judgment and becomes a heavy burden when difficult decisions are required,” she explains. However, ultimately you have to make the caregiving choice that is best for your parent, even if that means your previous promise cannot be honored.
As an adult caregiver, you may feel guilty because you now have time focus on yourself rather than focusing exclusively on your parent. You may be consumed with guilt merely for indulging in such simple pleasures as going shopping or to a movie or having dinner with friends.
You should work hard to banish those feelings. As long as you know your parent is in a safe setting, being well-cared for, you should view the ability to go out and enjoy yourself with relief, not guilt. Not having such opportunities can cause you to build up resentment against your parent—and that’s not a good emotion to have either.
In this transitional period, family caregivers may feel a loss of control. You’ve been the ones caring for your parent for many months or possibly even years, and suddenly leaving that care in the hand of “strangers” can be disconcerting. You may feel that no one else can do a better job of caring for your parent than you can. While that’s true on an emotional level, you may have to concede that there are trained professionals who are in a better position to provide the medical care and assistance your parent needs.
Instead of feeling left out of the process, view yourself as part of a team with a common goal: to give your parent the best possible care. When appropriate, you should advocate for your parent’s care, bringing to the attention of administrators or nursing staff when you feel they are not adequately meeting your mom or dad’s needs. If you have suggestions for better care, you have every right to speak up.
Adjusting to a New Role
Also remember that while you have relinquished physical caregiving to others, you remain your parent’s most important emotional support. Embrace this as your new role. Even if an assisted living or skilled nursing setting, you still can be the doting son or daughter—holding your parent’s hand, giving them hugs, having conversations, watching TV together, or joining them for meal in the dining room. You may not be able to visit every day, but that’s okay. You can always give your parent a call. Having a great conversation on the phone can be a real highlight of your loved one’s day.
How do you overcome the emptiness that you may be feeling when your parent is no longer the center of every hour of your waking day? The answer is to fill the time with meaningful moments. Be grateful for the moments you have with your parent, but also be grateful for the moments when you can live life for you.
Finally, if you are having trouble making the adjustment, realize that you are not alone. Seek support when you need it—whether in the form of one-on-one counseling or family caregiver support groups. Knowing that others are going through the same type of experience is a helpful way to come to grips with your emotions. Being able to approach your new situation with a positive outlook will be beneficial to you as well as your parent.
CHIME IN: How have you dealt with changes in your family caregiver role?