How do you know whether you’re being a good caregiver? What if you aren’t? Who decides?
In a society where elder abuse is becoming a better-known and understood issue, and medical professionals routinely receive training before being hired as providers. How can you know if you’re doing it right, and protecting yourself and your loved one from abuse?
People don’t usually ask the question out loud, Am I a good caregiver? But we all wonder from time to time if someone else could do it better, if our loved one needs professional care, or if we ourselves are putting up with abuse.
Do any of these sound familiar?
● I feel so bad because I totally forgot mom’s doctor’s appointment.
● Dad fell again today. I don’t know how I let that happen. I should have been there to steady him.
● Why do I keep taking all the crazy things he says so personally and yelling at him? I know he can’t help his delusions, and he’s incessantly afraid I’m going to leave him. It doesn’t help me at all when I yell. He just gets a gazillion-times needier than he was 10 minutes ago.
We ask ourselves these kinds of questions. Then we judge or criticize ourselves, and may decide we aren’t doing our best, or that our best isn’t ever good enough.
Being a caregiver is one of the most challenging, thankless, lonely, and important jobs there are. It doesn’t come with an instruction manual. But we care deeply for our loved ones and want to take good care of them.
Try to remember the first time you realized you were a caregiver. It’s surprising enough to realize it ourselves, but then we might think things like:
Does anyone else realize that I’m doing this, and do they know that I don’t have a clue what I’m doing? What if I make mistakes? What if I can’t do things right? What if I hurt my loved one or myself?
The fact that we’re emotionally tied to our loved one makes it more challenging because we love them and we want them to be happy, comfortable, well-cared-for, and safe.
Another thing that can surprise us is how quickly the situation can change: needs, conditions, environment, living quarters, diet, sleep, privacy, friendships, jobs, and our ability to keep up with it all. We’re constantly adapting to new habits, routines, and course corrections – and it can be exhausting.
In the back of our minds, we keep wondering…
Am I doing a good job or am I missing things? Am I doing as much as I can, or am I forgetting important details? Should I call the nurse? How will I make ends meet? There has to be an easier way.
Intentional Caring—For Your Loved One and You
The key is to learn to notice thoughts that creep up into your consciousness about your possible ineptitude and just realize that of course, your brain is telling you something is wrong and that you don’t know what you’re doing, because it is good at looking out for danger in order to keep you alive.
Every day is a new day, and we learn as we go. But our brains don’t necessarily want us to learn.
They want us to stay safe, to conserve energy, and to be connected with other humans. They don’t want us to experiment with new ideas, work hard to accomplish goals, and nurture new relationships.
Our brains tell us, “Better to stay safe. Keep a low profile. Stick with the old program. Even if our current situation is painful or unfulfilling, we’re still alive, so let’s maintain the status quo. You don’t know how to do that. Wait for a better time.”
But we can’t wait until we know how to do things before we try them. We can’t be an expert at bathing another person until we’ve done it a few times and learned all the tricks.
A baby doesn’t wait until he knows how to walk before taking the first step. He learns to walk by taking steps and falling, correcting, falling again and eventually fine-tuning the skill.
So you want to lovingly thank your brain for protecting you, but tell it that you’re going to think intentionally for yourself, what does being a good caregiver look like to me?
We have things we assume come from what we see all around us, and we decide that they all have good points, so perfection is being a good caregiver.
Doing all the things that multiple people working around the clock probably couldn’t keep up with is the definition of good caregiving. So other places outside of your own brain are not always the best place to turn when deciding whether you’re a good caregiver.
They are good places to turn when you need advice, new skills, tools, support, and information, but not for opinions about your value and abilities.
Turn to your own self internally, to intentionally avoid defaulting to two the two main things that trip up many caregivers.
- Is my house clean and in order?
- Is my loved one happy, and is everyone else I’m responsible for happy?
A tidy house is not a good gauge of whether you’re a good caregiver. A basic amount of cleanliness is essential and healthy, but having the dishes done immediately after every meal, and vacuuming every week aren’t essential.
These things may feel important if we haven’t identified what a good caregiver is.
Whether your loved one is happy isn’t a good gauge either. His or her attitudes, illness, mental capacity, and complaints often have nothing to do with whether you’re a good caregiver.
These two lies are what we may default to if we don’t define for ourselves and ask what being a good caregiver looks like. I sometimes ask my clients to share with me. “What do you think a good caregiver does? What do you expect of yourself?”
Some things I hear are: I want my loved one to be comfortable, happy, feel loved, get well, stay clean, be nice, do their exercises or perform their activities of daily living, such as personal care, as independently as possible.
But those things are usually about what your loved one does or feels. You can show your loved one all day long how much you love them, and they still might not feel loved, just like teenagers and three-year-olds.
You may try to help them see how staying clean or doing their therapy exercises will help them stay independent for longer, but if they don’t care, that doesn’t say anything about your caregiving prowess.
That’s on them. That doesn’t mean you failed. They still might not choose to feel loved, or want to be independent, like with dementia or confusion. How they feel has nothing to do with how you acted, what you said, or what you think and feel. It’s about them.
To decide whether or not you’re doing a good job based on anyone else’s feelings and behavior isn’t fair…to you or to them.
And other people, like relatives and friends who help or don’t, or judge and criticize, are in their own space and need to work out their own idea of how their life is going and what they’re contributing to the world.
It has nothing to do with your abilities as a caregiver. You know far better than I do or anyone else, yourself and your loved one.
When it comes to taking care of someone, it has to be simple.
The three things that make me the best caregiver I can be are to:
1. Love him. Like crazy. That is within my control – yes, he frustrates me, but he’s easy to love. It comes naturally, and it makes me happy.
Love in my heart feels good. And that isn’t work, especially when I remember who he is inside, and what God thinks of him. I have a picture of Jesus that says, “The greatest gift I could give you is if you could see yourself the way I do.”
Whether you believe in Jesus or not, you might understand that everyone is infinitely precious and loveable.
I teach that if we simply expect everyone to be themselves, not like we think they should, we won’t be disappointed.
2. Protect him. I monitor his health and help him make decisions. Stress and some foods make him bleed profusely, so I work to provide for us so he doesn’t have to deal with employers, co-workers, and the public anymore.
For you, protecting your loved one might be not allowing him or her to wander alone outside, drive the car, eat candy all day, or over-medicate. You want to give them the choices and opportunities that will keep them safe.
Many times you’ll choose to care for them in ways they don’t appreciate or understand.
If your loved one is cognitively impaired, you must make many decisions for them. Some of our loved ones are able to make rational decisions, and while they may not be the choices we would make, we let them have autonomy as adults rather than treating them like children.
3. Communicate with him – Notice I didn’t say make sure he communicates with me. He gets to choose whether to communicate with me; sometimes he can’t.
He usually wants to communicate with me more than I want, because I’m busy working all day, but he really likes to randomly start talking about things that come up in his head.
I always try to stop what I’m doing, make eye contact, and listen actively. It’s disrupting for me, and in the past, I’ve tried to set boundaries that include when he can and can’t initiate a conversation with me when I’m working.
But I’ve found that enforcing those boundaries is agonizing for him and not helpful to me. By the time he does get to talk to me, he may be so scared and confused that he can’t make sense. He’s in full panic.
For me, I’ve found that it’s easier to be interrupted than it is to deal with delusions and panic that may not occur if I‘m able to address his concerns as soon as they come up. So I changed my MO. That’s okay.
Remember, this is about making your life as a caregiver easier, not more complicated. Figure out what works best for you.
No one can do it better than you. If they could, they’d be doing it.
You’re the one who stepped up. You’re the one in the trenches. You see your loved one’s pain and difficulties.
Being all you want to be as a caregiver is challenging, I know, but it ultimately makes your life easier when you identify how you’d like to do it, what makes sense to you, and ultimately what makes it easiest for you.
Because your loved one needs you to thrive and be happy. When you’re confident and fulfilled, you’re a better caregiver. When you’re judging and criticizing yourself, you’re more likely to be judgmental and critical of others, including your loved one.
What does being a good caregiver look like for you? I encourage you to think about it.
If your loved one had a surgery you thought was a good idea and it turned out to have a bad result, does that mean you’re a bad caregiver?
You did the best you could with the information you had. This fits under protecting your loved one. Be confident that when you made that decision, you had your loved one’s best interest at heart.
You weren’t sitting down evilly scheming and laughing to yourself as you thought of ways to hurt your loved one, and decided surgery was a good plan. You truly wanted what was best for him or her. The outcome doesn’t say anything about you.
Of course, when things are flowing more easily you can go above and beyond your expectations if you choose. Like if you’re doing the three basics or your own basics, AND the house is clean, or you had a nice trip to the park, AND you made lunch, yay!
But it’s not appropriate to have guilt if all you do all day is give your loved one a sponge bath and you curled up on the couch and read a romance novel the rest of the day. Love yourself and expect only the basics.
Everything else you do will be a gold star. You ARE the best person for the job. I know that because you’re the one doing it.
“If you do only half of what you wanted to do, or do it half as well as you would have liked, pat yourself on half your back.” —Cheiko Okazaki
Do you struggle with self-care? I have a free download to help you put yourself first. (link)