Food For Thought

Caregiving: The Realities & Responsibilities

by Mariam McElroy Dolliver, Contributing Writer

Mariam McElroy Dolliver

I was sitting in my car at the traffic light with tears streaming down my cheeks. My mother was once again in the hospital, the third time in six weeks. With feelings of guilt I wondered, “When will my life be mine?” Mother was terminally ill and I was drained from being the primary caregiver, for the second time in my life. What an emotional mess I was, and surely not proud of my reaction.


Family caregiving is not easy! In fact, it is an emotional roller-coaster ride of peaks, valleys, curves and fears. Never has the phrase “live one day at a time” seemed so pertinent. Yesterday is gone, tomorrow has not arrived. Focus on today. Remember the word: HALT. Don’t get too Hungry, don’t get too Angry, don’t get too Lonely, or too Tired. Feeling helplessness, scared, angry, grief and guilt are normal reactions to caregiving.


Frustrations and feelings of loss are common for both the caregiver and care recipient. The caregiver is often pulled between many roles — the family caregiver, a mother, a daughter, a spouse, a good employee, a member of a faith community. As care-giving demands increase, time for self-care and just “time for me” can decrease without additional support. Finding that support is key to caregiver relief.


Most families have one person to whom everyone looks when decisions are to be made. Often it is the oldest and sometimes, it is the “single” sibling who ends up with the lion’s share of responsibility. In my family of origin, it was always my sister. Families should talk about what they want should they need assistance, and plans to create a strategy to meet these needs are essential.

Caregiving demands can trigger the resurfacing of sibling rivalry and discord in families, even with the best-laid plans. Focusing on “what is best for mom or dad” should guide the conversations. Mom and dad should be an integral part of planning. “If you have the relatively simple skills of win-win conflict resolution, or share decision making, you can keep the tug-of-war between family members from becoming antipathies that last a lifetime,” says Susan Heitler, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in Denver.


The blues may have been born in Memphis, but you don’t need to go there to get them. They occur as the outcome of uninterrupted stress and caregiving demands. Most of us call those blues “depression.” This is real, and not surprisingly, often happens to both the caregiver and the care recipient. Don’t ignore depression, and discuss this with your doctor. Caregivers tell the California Caregiver Resource Centers that their blues come from:                    .


Illness of another person in the family as they watch the pain, suffering and changes in their family member’s health.


Isolation and not knowing how to help or to get help.


Being frustrated, angry and feeling helpless, unappreciated or ineffective.


Being fatigued from helping or caregiving for another.


Some things to remember when the time does come for caregiving are:


Try to retain a sense of humor.


Patience is a gift (the caregiver and the aging parent need this gift). Try to talk about patience together if you can.


Do not try to plan too far ahead. Try not to “cross too many bridges.” 


Remember: “Yard by yard, life is hard, inch by inch, life is a cinch.”


Be kinder and gentler in judging yourself. You will be surprised at how much more patience you can find within yourself if you are not so tense. 


Most of us have trouble with our relationships when our expectations are too high. Reaching for the stars is stressful.

A family member once told me that, as the end of her mother’s life approached, she found an old china dish with this inscription: 

“If I should live to a ripe old age, 

May I possess some bit of individuality,

charm and wit.

That I may not be discarded when

I am withered, worn, and weary,

But sought after and cherished

like a fine antique.”


For Caregiver Support, contact your local Area Agency on Aging. You will find them in your local telephone book, online at, or by calling 1-800-677-1116. Marian McElroy Dolliver may be reached at Senior Connections, Capital Area Agency on Aging in Richmond, (804) 672-4486 or 1-800-989-2286.

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