The Accidental Care Giver

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The Accidental Care Giver

You may have heard this before: Put a frog in a pot of water and set the burner to simmer. If the change in temperature is sufficiently gradual, by the time the frog experiences pain, it will be too late to escape. (Please don’t try this at home.)

Could you be that frog? It starts simply. While shopping, you pick up a few items for your elderly, widowed father. As time goes on, you get more and more items for him and make extra stops at various stores. Before you know it, you’ve taken on all his shopping and errands. Next, the laundry becomes too difficult for Dad. So, being the dutiful daughter, you’re now washing, drying, and folding his clothes. Then, Dad begins to have difficulty cooking so you bring over a couple of meals a week. Then, well, you get the picture. Before you know it, you’re neglecting your own household and work responsibilities and are so stressed you’re ready to implode.

And what does Dad think about your help? He thinks he needn’t spend any money on his care because “my daughter takes care of it.” He has learned to take your assistance for granted and so have you. Both of you forget how much you do and how long it takes to do it. If Dad has dementia, it’s even worse; he may forget all the “little” things you handle.

While Dad is proud of his ability to live “independently,” you, being human, are growing resentful of the increasing time you spend caring for him. So you bring up the possibility of hiring help and come up against his attitude towards money; i.e., he doesn’t want to spend any. He may even play the guilt card to ensure that you continue to pick up all the chores he’s no longer capable of handling. So there you are, boiling, and you can’t jump out.

Here’s another example of a caregiver in a pot. Your wife, who suffers from multiple sclerosis, is experiencing a steady decline and is becoming dependent on you for all of her care. She can no longer move from her wheelchair without help, so you must be with her all the time. Actually, someone must be with her, but she will accept help from no one but her husband. She is unwilling to recognize the amount of stress that results from providing constant aid, and you are unable to identify and state your needs. The situation moves to the breaking point when you are diagnosed with cancer and must undergo chemotherapy.

Getting That Call

On many occasions (perhaps the majority of them), I’ve got that call from an accidental care giver, a family member of an elder who can no longer fend for him- or herself, and has gotten used the family member sliding into the role as the care giver. And, likely, the caller will be frustrated with the elder, and perhaps with other family members, over who is doing what and who isn’t. For these reasons among others, my first meeting with the family might be full of conflict.

Summary Points

  • Accidental care givers find their entire lives have been taken over with responsibilities for the elder.

  • The elder, even if well-off, may resist spending money on services.

  • An initial family meeting may be full of conflict and resentment.

Published by Gary Bloom

Gary Bloom writes about learning, counseling, computers in education (and occasionally, some other stuff). He's a counselor, working in Edmonds.

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