“When will I see you again?” my Grandma Gladys would often ask as I was getting ready to leave. Instead of giving her a time and date I would answer with, “Well you know I’m awfully busy at college.” Part of that answer came out of frustration that my current visit didn’t seem to count. The other part was sheer ego. I wanted her to know that I was important and had a life. I rarely felt good after a visit that ended like that.
Was I doing enough? Could I have visited her more? I loved my grandma dearly, but had a lot of guilt about not doing “enough” for her. It’s hard to say what is enough and feeling of guilt only fuel your uncertainty. The third letter in my S.A.N.E. Method™—N is for Not Guilty. “Not Enough” thinking is guilt trying to get the best of you. Here are a few things I do when I’m feeling guilty:
1. Put yourself in a rational state of mind. (You may have to do math problems to move your brain from an emotional to a logical place. Try it. It works!)
2. In that logical state, write down all that you do for your loved one. (Make no judgments as you write.)
3. Stay in that unemotional place and look at your list.
4. Ask yourself, “Could I do more? What would I do? How would it affect my life?”
5. If it makes sense to do more, add in the time. If it doesn’t, look at your list again, but this time with a sense of gratitude for the time and energy you give.
Guilt will be a constant companion on our journeys as a caregiver, but you’re in control, even though you may not always feel that way; I get it. Sometimes doing less is better for both you and your loved one.
I don’t usually subscribe to “busyness for busyness sake,” but at times there is value in simply getting out and doing something—anything. This won’t sustain me in the long run, but it works to move me through to meaningful activities.
Family caregivers can easily fall into variations of a similar trap: thinking that the appearance of their parents being busy trumps the actuality of being involved in an activity that’s engaging and meaningful to them, or thinking that — like some impromptu cruise directors on the Good Ship Getting Older — it’s somehow now up to the children to constantly be planning activities for mom and dad.
Don’t get me wrong. There’s plenty of value, mental and physical, in spending time with your parents to help them stay active and busy. But I believe it’s the “slow times” and the hours when your folks are on their own, pursuing their own interests in their own ways, that provide the greatest payoffs for their emotional and bodily health.
Just as is true with yourself, the goal is to help your parents get into things they will find enjoyable over the longer term — including activities they might do solo and under their own direction — because those are the ones they’ll do regularly and sustain by themselves.
If you notice your parents isolating themselves more and more, try opening a conversation about what brings meaning to their lives. And ask them how you can support them. Your support — whether is be simply listening to them or assisting them with ideas — can be one of the single most important things you do for your parents.