Caregiving: the hardest job you’ll ever have

One day while scanning the thrift store bookshelves, I spotted a memoir titled “Designated Daughter.” Author D.G. Fulford tells of moving home to Ohio to be near her aging mother, serving first as best friend and then, in time, as caregiver.

Fulford rejoices in these “bonus years” with Mom, claiming she’s the one who gained the most from the experience. “A mother needs a daughter’s help and the daughter gets more help in return than she could ever give,” she gushes.

Oh, my. This is a story I imagined I would share—the happy ending I longed for when we moved my mother from her home in Rhode Island to the house next door to ours, where she resided for the next 10 years. But it didn’t work out that way.

The strain of being on call 24/7 and attending to Mom’s needs whether I felt like it or not was tough, to say the least. Over time, as my mother’s health began to unravel, my life became a state of emergency. I was always waiting for the other shoe to drop as first one malady, then another, assaulted her. As Gilda Radner used to say, “It’s always something.”

Moreover, Mom was difficult. She did not go gentle into that good night. She lamented moving and hated Pennsylvania—until she left to go into assisted living near my brother in Ohio. Then she spoke of her decade here with affectionate nostalgia. Go figure.

It wasn’t all terrible, of course. Mom could be good company—she was smart, well informed and opinionated—and we had plenty of good times too. But she could also be cutting and sarcastic. And she seemed oblivious to our contributions to her care and comfort. Only rarely did she say thanks.

Lately I’ve been bookmarking articles with titles like “The Seven Deadly Emotions of Caregiving” (for the record, they are guilt, resentment, anger, worry, loneliness, grief and defensiveness) and “Are You Going Broke Being a Caregiver?” They supply affirmation of my own experience of caregiving, so different from the uplifting “Designated Daughter” variety.

Last week a friend who is shepherding her cranky, 88-year-old father through shoulder-replacement surgery described everything she’s doing for him, including sleeping in his room the first night in case he wakes and needs help. “What a good daughter you are,” I exclaimed, to which she insisted “No—I’m not.”

She finds the caregiver role oppressive and can’t muster the sunny outlook she feels is expected of her. She’s weary of the constant demands, tired of putting her own life on the back burner in service to her dad’s many needs. Despite doing all the right things, she feels like a failure. And she hates herself for it.

Certainly, there are rewards to caregiving, if only the comfort of knowing you’ve done what’s needed. But the stresses can be extreme. Perhaps it’s better to voice them. Otherwise, you wind up comparing yourself with some elusive—maybe mythical—ideal of the happily self-sacrificing son or daughter. That’s a game you can’t possibly win.

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