How to Disentangle from Caregiving

Most caregivers, I think, enter into caregiving with good intentions, but that is no guarantee that the endeavor will end well.  Caregivers sometimes sacrifice their careers, income, marriages, friendships, and health.  Oftentimes they find themselves stuck and thinking they have reached a point where they can no longer care for elderly parents.

In her July 7, 2021, podcast: When You Can No Longer Care for Elderly Parents-The Caring Generation®, Pamela Wilson discusses seven ways to disentangle yourself from caregiving. 

But what really hooked me on the podcast was information shared by Pamela’s guest, Dr. Ingrid Bacon, a mental health therapist, researcher, and educator at Kingston and St. George’s University of London.

Now, I have given a lot of thought to my past caregiving experience. So much so that I wrote What to Do about Mama? which was, I think, a way of processing the ups and downs of that experience. 

But when I listened to Dr. Bacon speak about the tendency for caregivers to excessively meet the needs of others—to the expense of their own needs—I found myself looking at my own experience from a new and different perspective. 

Bacon noted that some family caregivers exhibit an injury pattern of extreme emotional, relational, and occupational imbalance—problems linked to their formative childhood experiences.  The caregiver’s need for growth, self-development, validation, safety, or belonging, for example, can result in an over adaptation to the needs of others.  Subsequently, these self-sacrificing behaviors lead to a suppression of their own needs and emotions, and a dynamic of interpersonal control.  All combined, these factors create conflict that is detrimental to the whole caregiving process. 

This process was complicated in my personal caregiving situation by the fact that I was not a daughter, but a daughter-in-law.  I did not grow up in the same environment as had my husband and his siblings. 

Circumstances of my childhood were such that my basic need for safety, stability, nurturing, and acceptance were not adequately met.  Although I know that my involvement with my husband’s family from the age of 18 was largely based on my need to be a part of a (safe, stable, nurturing and accepting) family, I realize now that they probably did not know the extent to which they filled that need. 

Because I wanted to express my “thanks” for being a part of this family for 40 years, I sacrificed a lot to care for my mother-in-law—with the expectation that my brother and sisters-in-law would be making like-sacrifices.  Through over-adapting, I became almost imprisoned in the role; entangled in excessive doing and caring to the point of burnout. 

The results were not pretty. During the last of 7 years of caregiving, I detached emotionally from my mother-in-law and my relationship with my siblings-in-law devolved from being historically good to one that is now nearly non-existent.     

“Where do we go from here? Well, I really don’t know, but I do know it will depend on the kind of relationship my husband wants with his family, my gentle urging, and his siblings’ receptiveness and response. David has never been proactive in maintaining relationships. The frequent interaction we had with his family once his mother moved north all revolved around her. I don’t know if the current lack of interaction is a matter of returning to the old status quo or if it is about hurt. They have now “all moved on” in their best “we don’t talk about it” fashion. Time will tell if the moving on will include us, or not. This is not the way I would handle it, but really, this is not about me.”

What to Do about Mama? p. 40

It has been ten years since my mother-in-law passed away.  I cannot comment on the relationships my husband’s siblings have with each other, but as far as my husband and I are concerned, the process of their “moving on” makes me question if our once-warm bond was nothing more than a figment of my imagination. 

Pamela Wilson’s Seven Steps to disentangle yourself from caregiving

  1. Decide and commit to changing the situation mentally—in your mind.
  2. Create a family care plan to present and discuss with your parents and the family.
  3. Be open to learning.
  4. Be honest and transparent.
  5. Hold a family meeting to announce your decision to decrease, modify, or end caregiving responsibilities.
  6. Support two-way conversations with siblings, parents, and others who want to discuss the plan.
  7. Commit to regaining your sense of self–to identify what you value and what you want and need from life.

Thoughts for consideration

Do not buy into faulty beliefs: 

  • Denial:  Assuming that children will care for their parents or that parents will never get sick or need care.
  • Avoidance:  Not preparing ahead of time by initiating caregiving conversations before a “crisis situation” develops.
  • Control:  Taking over because you think it’s easier or faster to take charge.

To move forward when you realize you cannot live like this anymore:

  • Prepare mentally.
  • Research information.
  • Contemplate your situation—think ahead.
  • Commit to change.
  • Offer options

Communication

  • Be honest and transparent about escalating needs. 
  • Recognize that others may fear change, and therefore, resist. 
  • Ask siblings how they want to participate to implement needed changes.
  • Set a realistic timeline, then move ahead.
  • Be prepared for conflict.  Guilty feelings foster defensiveness.  Remain calm and listen without justifying your need to regain independence and tp live in peace.
  • Solicit outside help to navigate family conflict. 
  • You are not a “quitter”.  Do not fall back into a pattern of fear and self-doubt.

There is life after caregiving!



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