As a working caregiver to my mother for more than two decades it took me a long time to figure out just what it was I was supposed to be doing. Like many others who “fall into” the responsibility of caring for an aging parent, I initially thought of my efforts as just “taking care of Mom.” There was no road map, no mentor, not much guidance at all 20 years ago. I just sort of did whatever was necessary, made whatever adjustments to my life that were required so that my mother was safe, comfortable, received good health care, and enjoyed the best possible quality of life. My caregiving role was mixed in with my regular routines, with my identity as a daughter, with my everyday toil as a working member of society. To top it off, at some point, since we spent so much time together, my Mom and I also became best friends.
We all want as much as possible to retain our autonomy, our self-determination, the sense of control over our own lives. My mom was no different. Over time as the ability to manage her affairs and make decisions declined, she resisted accepting those diminished capacities. I wasn't always patient. I often found myself caught between a rock and hard place: wanting to do what was best for my Mom, but also wanting to meet her expectations of respect. As she became more dependent this became a source of leverage. She leaned on it, sometimes guilt tripping me into doing things I did not always feel comfortable with. This mostly subtle and quiet battle of wills lasted for years. Struggling with it led to my getting a better handle on the caregiving role.
At some point—and I cannot say for sure when it happened—I realized that caring for my mom was best understood as a second job. I had developed insights and a set of real skills that enabled me to do the job well. As my confidence as a caregiver grew, the role began to separate from my identity as a daughter and friend. They were bound together but distinct. In fact, I came to realize there were times—such as when weighing critical health decisions—that my knowledge and status as a caregiver was more important than my relationship as a daughter...well, almost. Eventually, Mom also came to see the caregiving role as a special ability, a calling, a thing unto itself. And in time, the guilt tripping faded away.