Self Caring

Caregiver Stress: The Fear Factor

Last updated: Aug 04, 2010

Vintage Halloween Diecut Jack-O-Lantern

Does worry about your loved one's reaction ever prevent you from doing something as a caregiver on his or her behalf? Being "afraid of Mom," for example, sounds crazy on the face of it (fear, at our age?!) and yet we all know old relationship patterns have deep and lasting grooves. And some care-ees have strong personalities! Hello, caregiver stress.

Take this case: A caregiver recently described to me the stealth and subterfuge involved in cleaning her parents' house. Her 85-year-old mom, who's beginning to show signs of dementia, refuses to have any housekeeping help (or any help of any kind, even though she could also use meal prep and yard help, and there's money for it). The burden was falling on Dad, also 85. So Caregiver Daughter drove from Iowa to Chicago to do a deep clean herself while the parents vacationed at a cousin's. She cleared outdated food from cupboards, threw out old papers and jars, ditched full roach traps, and scrubbed, vacuumed, scrubbed some more.

"But I think I went overboard," she fretted. "It's bad enough I threw away old stuff. What if Mom notices the new roach traps and the clean shelf paper I replaced?"

"So you tell her with a wink that the cleaning fairy visited and everybody's happy," I say, cavalierly.

"You don't know my mother!" says Caregiver Daughter, darkly.

"Oh, what can she do about it?"

"She'll take it out on my Dad! She'll stop talking to me! I can't win," mutters Caregiver Daughter.

She's not alone in her fear. Any of the following ring a bell?

  • "I can't drop off Dad to the Senior Center for activities "“ he'd never forgive me."

  • "When we try to get him to stop driving, he threatens to cut us out of his will"¦."

  • "She needs Meals on Wheels but her pride would never allow it"¦."

  • "If I hired someone to give Mom a bath, Dad would kill me"¦."

  • "We promised we'd never put her in a nursing home"¦."

Knowing what's needed is one thing. But knowing how the receiver will react stops us cold. And this self-censoring fear is a little-acknowledged source of caregiver stress.

Even with agreeable and reasonable elders, there's an element of not wanting to rock the boat. Yep -- with a nurse's approval -- I slipped the morphine into my stoic Mom's coffee without a word during home hospice (after she refused any painkiller but "one Tylenol," despite obvious pain) rather than insist on it to her face and risk a fuss.

What's the best course of action when you're afraid of repercussions? Lifting a page from your adolescent playbook and sneaking behind the person's back? Continuing to heed All Knowing Mom or Head of Household Husband, even when they're sick "“ and wrong? Putting on your best like-it-or-lump-it stern face even when you're the one who'll wind up taking the lumps?

It's stressful to have to be the grownup.