Dear Family Advisor

I know Dad's just sitting at his care facility all day, feeling miserable -- and the guilt is eating me alive.

Last updated: Oct 11, 2011


After leaving my household of his own choice, then spending three years living in a mobile home community, my dad has moved into a nearby care facility. Problems with mild dementia forced the move.

The facility doesn't provide enough care and supervision. Dad is confused, lonely, and feels abandoned. Besides working full-time, caring for my own family, and handling his doctor appointments, hospitalizations, and tooth extractions, I'm exhausting myself to get the facility to make sure he eats. He can't keep track of time and says he isn't hungry. He's down to 130 pounds soaking wet!

Dad sleeps in his chair all day, without changing out of his pajamas -- or he wanders the hall. I'm dealing with the care facility and its problems, but what I can't manage is my guilt. Should I bring him home and try to care for him myself? I feel like I'm letting him -- and myself -- down.

Guilt can crush you and rob you of precious time and energy. You're being your dad's advocate and doing all you can to see that he gets the care and attention he deserves, and that's important. Equally important is that you start to recognize all that you're doing and all the ways you continue to show love.

Your dad's condition will only continue to decline. I suggest you keep him where he is -- making sure your concerns about his care are addressed -- or move him to a small group home where he can receive more thoughtful care. Know that if you bring him home, you'll need additional support or you could break your health and put tremendous stress on yourself and everyone else in your family.

Take the power away from guilt by focusing not on what you can't do but on what you can. You can smile and be upbeat when you see your dad. Push all those worries aside when you visit. Take him a bag of his favorite cookies or chips, open the curtains, rearrange his room if it's cluttered. Bring a photo he's always loved, some car magazines, something to do with his hands -- for instance, a puzzle the two of you could work on while you're there. You can take him down to the lunch room and eat together (try to make friends with other clients and the staff while you're there), or take a picnic and eat outside in a garden area.

You can tell him a story from his past. This may (or may not) spark a memory, but it would help you feel connected. You can rise above the guilt, the worry, and the overwhelming thoughts for just a few moments and simply sit with your dad. Let him feel your presence and the warmth of your hand. There's a great deal we can't fix, but our love and our presence "“ those we can wholeheartedly give.

Of course you want to do all you can to insist that the staff at the facility meet the needs of your dad and all the people who live there. Interact often and let them know what you expect. They should be aware of when your dad is eating or not eating. They should try to make him comfortable and engaged. If nothing changes, report them so that other families don't suffer. There are too many good facilities (and cost isn't always the deciding factor) to have to tolerate improper care.

Your feelings of guilt will probably be harder for you to manage. Here are a couple of tips:

  • Name the guilt. "I feel guilty because Dad's lonely." "I feel guilty when I'm not home for my kids because I'm with my dad." "I feel guilty when I'm working because I'm not at home, and guilty at home because I'm not at work." Write them all down individually.

  • Underneath the list write, "It's impossible to do it all."

  • Keep a list of your "gold star" moments -- when you showed up, solved a small problem, made someone smile -- whatever you're doing well.

  • Don't let others "should" you. If your boss, a coworker, a family member, or even the care facility uses that "You should" phrase, get out fast.

  • When you start to mull over yesterday's mistakes, yell, "Stop!" Let it go. Today is a fresh start.

  • Find the crazy-funny humor in your own mistakes and be the first to admit that you messed up.

  • Say, "I'm sorry," mean it, and move on.

  • Give yourself permission to bungle your way through it all -- marriage, parenting, caregiving. All we can do is muddle through!

And there's one last thing I want you to do: Each night as you're brushing your teeth, take three slow, deep breaths and look at yourself in the mirror. Let go of the day. Let go of what you said or didn't say, did or didn't do. Remember one kindness in the midst of the chaos. Whether you were the giver or receiver of this kindness doesn't matter. Remember this one thing and then say to your reflection, "You have a good heart."