Saturday, December 19, 2020

Ask Aunt Dorcas: The Reluctant Caregiver

When Paul came home from the hospital.
Dear Aunt Dorcas, 

I have a question about the times when you feel resentful at what really must be done.

I feel like a horrible person to admit this but old people are not my thing. I love children. Give me anything to do with children. God’s sense of humor, or else just my rough edges that need smoothed off, have brought quite a few old people who need help into my life. I helped care for my grandma, my mom’s mom, when I was still living at home, until she passed away.  My husband and I helped take care of my dad for months after he had a stroke. He was at my sister's but we were there two or three days a week. And now my elderly mother-in law needs care and I am feeling obligated to take her in, just because of the family situation. My husband’s sisters can travel to help out sometimes but the main work will fall on me.  I know from experience with my dad and grandma how burned out the main caregivers get. My husband had to sacrifice so much for me to care for my dad that I owe him help and support with his mom, but honestly I feel resentful at being in this position. I hate to express this to my husband because it puts him in a very hard position. How can I keep a cheerful attitude when frankly I’m burned out?


Dear Brenda,

I thought I knew about caregiving. After all, I birthed five babies and raised six children, so I knew all about the bone-weary exhaustion, the endless needs, and the utter dependence.

I also watched my parents grow old. This process was filled with endless impossible dilemmas, countless discussions with siblings in which we couldn’t find solutions, numerous flights across half the country, and far too many times when both my children and my parents needed me, and I could not take care of both of them at once.

Then my husband was horribly injured in a fall, and I learned about caregiving in a whole new way, when all the relationship rules and patterns are suddenly ripped to shreds and you have to figure it out on the fly. When a strong person is suddenly weak, and the previous support person has to grow a rigid spine overnight and give stern orders to the previously in charge person. And when an independent person, in one instant, is in severe pain and can't even rub his eye or feed himself.

Caregiving is done out of sight. It takes every ounce of your energy, time, and resources, yet it earns little applause and usually no money.

And yet, we take it on because it is right, because we know that a human life has value, and a helpless human deserves care and kindness. We do it because we love.

We do what needs to be done, and, in the process, we find out we are much stronger than we thought.

And we are weaker than we knew. Sometimes the utter physical weariness overwhelms us, and the emotional exhaustion threatens to put us in such dark places that we are close to needing care ourselves.

My children are adults, and my parents have gone to be with Jesus, so I’ve had time to process those caregiving roles. My husband has recovered astonishingly and can brush his own teeth again and even drive a car, yet he is still healing, and we are both processing what we’ve been through and who we are now.

Here’s my advice. Keep in mind that it comes from an unfinished story.

1.       Discuss options with family members. Can Grandma’s care be rotated? Does she need professional care at a nursing home? Does the county provide in-home respite care?  If you take on caregiving out of guilt, because someone else could do it but you feel like saying No isn’t an option, the resentment later on will eat you alive. Grandma doesn’t deserve that.

2.       If you see that the only option is for you to take on the caregiving, then set your face like a flint and do it. You are a strong woman. You can do what needs to be done. You can not let this precious life be abandoned to bedsores and reeking Depends.

3.       However. You need to ask for help. Repeat after me: ASK FOR HELP. Other family members, church people, Medicare programs, Hospice, and friends. Your husband’s sister needs to come for a week in June so you can go to your niece’s wedding. Your mother-in-law’s church people should provide respite care and occasional meals.
My brother and his wife, who were our parents’ main caregivers, let us know when they needed to travel and needed one of us to come stay with Mom and Dad.
When Paul was injured, I felt terrible asking my children to get up at night with him. But I did it anyhow. I had been through my own trauma, and there wasn’t that much of me left.

4.       Talk to someone else. Not your husband, in this case. Maybe your sister is a good safe person to vent to about your mother-in-law and how her false teeth click when she smacks her oatmeal, and you think it will drive you clear out of your mind by next week, if not tomorrow morning. Plus she drools! You can handle Depends but drooling is going to be the end of you.
Find your person. Talk to them. Go back to doing what needs to be done.

5.       Take care of yourself. Shower. Brush your teeth. Eat good food. You need to do this. Monitor your mental health. Your heroism has a limit. There are other options. None of them might be pretty, but sometimes we only get to choose between really distasteful options.

6.       Choose to embrace this season as God’s call for you. There will be times when you want to escape this life so desperately that you’ll fantasize about grabbing your purse and walking out to the car, right now, and driving off to California.  That level of desperation is usually a sign that you need more support, but it’s also a chance to deliberately embrace this season as a clear calling and exactly what you’re supposed to be doing. Think of it, all the people out there wondering what God’s will for their lives might be. Well. You know. This right here. God sees and knows. You are not abandoned. It’s going to be ok. Choose to embrace instead of escape.

As I mentioned, I’m mostly on the other side of the caregiving assignments. I have no regrets about immersing myself in caring for my babies, but I didn’t take care of myself like I should have. I had seasons of depression that got really bad before I asked for help. I regret that.

Sometimes I wonder what we could have done to make Mom and Dad’s care easier, and I still don’t know. Should we have insisted that they come to Oregon and live with us? Should we have moved them into assisted living? They wanted to live in their own home until they died, and I am all about giving the elderly as much autonomy as possible, but it sure put us in some impossible situations.

I also have no regrets about bringing Paul home from the hospital instead of putting him in a skilled care facility like the doctors thought we should. By God’s providence, our children were all in the area and able to help with his care. I think it will go down in family history as a very precious time. Others helped with meals, the family business, and so much more.

Because of the help we got, I was able to take a nap in my cabin every day. I couldn’t get out much, but I was able to call people and talk about what I was going through. For example, my friend Hope had also suffered a broken neck, and my friend Sharon is taking care of her elderly mom.  Both felt like lifesavers.

You are in a hard season, and you didn’t ask for it. If this is God’s assignment, he will give you what it takes. But you need to monitor how you're all doing and speak up about what you need.

I wish you well.

Aunt Dorcas


  1. Only a living God could give you such wisdom.

  2. This is, as usual, an ocean of wonderful, thoughtful, caring advice. No platitudes or holier-than-thou admonishments...just a solid, boots-on-the-ground "how to." Brava!

    The only thing that struck me a little bit the wrong way was your comment about "giving the elderly as much autonomy as possible." I suppose I used to kind of smugly espouse that same attitude. But as I rush ever closer to becoming one of "the elderly" myself, that kind of attitude tends to make me bristle more than take any kind of comfort. Who are we to be in charge of giving or not giving autonomy to the elderly? I don't know about you, but I plan on being in charge of my own autonomy for as long as possible, and I'm going to hold on to it for dear life for as long as I possibly can. I think the belief that someone else is in charge of what the elderly do or do not get is indicative of a pervasive and growing culture of ageism in Western society. Do we respect and revere our elders, or do we look upon them as a looming inconvenience and unwelcome interruption to our daily lives? It seems to me that Western Culture has given too much weight to "growing up" and getting as independent of our parents as possible; and that has made it all the more difficult to "go home" and pick up a caregiving relationship when "the elderly" begin to need help.

    I'm not criticizing any of the wonderful advice you have given here. It's just that the whole idea of anybody being in charge of controlling my autonomy in fifteen or twenty years made me a little uncomfortable.

    1. I understand your point about "giving autonomy," and, like you, I think about it more as we reach retirement age.
      I also feel that Western culture is not respectful of the elderly.
      And yet. This subject hits a deep nerve with me.
      I felt that if I was expected to drop everything and fly to Minnesota to rescue my parents whenever there was a disaster, I should have a tiny bit of say in how they lived.
      Sadly, they were never open to honest, open conversations about aging and decisions. Asking Mom to use a cane when she was 91 required a conference among the family at which I was appointed to have the Talk.
      She said no.
      All right then. We weren't going to force the issue.
      Then she broke two hips in two years and also started setting Tupperware on hot burners.
      Of course I left my children to fly off to take care of her. One time I flew to Minnesota five times in one year.
      The deeper issue was not the inconvenience to me and my family but the complicated dynamics that made my parents feel threatened while I felt powerless and used.
      When Paul was recovering, he told the kids he would accept their rules about Covid precautions, driving, and so on. After all, they were caring for him. It was a respectful and workable arrangement. I hope we can keep up that sort of communication as we get older.

    2. Absolutely. Our societal attitude toward aging has set up all kinds of awful scenarios like the one you describe. The corollary to societal pressure on children to grow up and grow independent of their parents is that parents are assigned the maxim: "I don't want to be a burden to my children." If you really think about THAT for a minute, it's screwed up on a multitude of levels. Why should aging parents be any more of a "burden" to their children than their children were to them when they were...children? Our society is all about hearing children and seeing children and giving children every good opportunity. Parenting is a monumental task...and apparently, it's a one-way street. Because when time works its will on the parents and they need to be seen and heard and given opportunities, they are expected to fall back on the old "I don't want to be a burden to my children" thing. They totally buy into that. My parents did. It made our relationship way more complicated than it needed to be as they grew more fragile and needed help--that they did NOT want to accept from us.

  3. Thanks,Dorcas! I'm THERE right now, and need every word of this. God bless you for sharing!

    1. You're welcome. I'm glad it spoke to you where you're at. Bless you for what you're doing.

  4. Very good. I'm an only child caring for 91yo father. My husband is totally supportive or I wouldn't make it. It's not easy.

    1. Much grace to you and your husband.

    2. When my mother needed much care-giving at home after surgery I valiantly tried to do it all, including the night shift. Then I realized I have to be able to rest at night and take a nap during the day. My family took time out of their busy schedules to cover during those times. I think I would have buckled without their help. It is too much for one person.

      On a related note, I was a substitute S.S. teacher at the time and learned (as I recall on Saturday evening) that I need to teach the next day for the regular teacher (a midwife). I knew I had to get my rest, so I did not start studying till 8:00 Sunday morning! And it worked out OK. God blessed that class with an extra portion of grace. LRM

    3. LRM--Your story feels like an example of how it ought to be, with you taking on the caregiving but asking for help, and your family stepping in. And the SS class was God covering the contingencies.

  5. Very good! I know a bit about caregiving too, with my mom, at times. When you have to juggle between her and holding down a job....