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Posted: May 30, 2008

Caregiver Fear

What You Can Do to Cope with Your Worst Caregiving Fears

"I've developed a new philosophy ... I only dread one day at a time."
- Charlie Brown

Fear! It can jolt you awake in the middle of the night, your body soaked with sweat and your heart pounding. Fear can creep up from your stomach and grab hold of your heart like an icy fist. It can paralyze your mind and it can make you physically ill.

Fear is something everyone experiences at certain times, but caregivers are faced with more than their fair share. That’s because caregiver fears are often compounded by shock and grief, typically resulting from an unexpected event, and exhaustion, usually from trying to manage both the emotional and practical aspects of caregiving.

Common Caregiver Fears

Fear of failing, by not living up to your own expectations of yourself or not meeting the demands of others on you, is a major source of caregiver anxiety.

Annette Clement, a caregiver from Cave Creek, Arizona, provides ongoing care for her husband and her mother and intermittent care for several elderly friends. She describes her experience with fear about caregiving this way: “You are petrified that you’ll fail at such an important task, that you’ll disappoint yourself, your loved one and extended family members.”

While fear of failure looms large for many caregivers, a number of other fears can also be at play. Here’s a list of some of the most common ones:

Accept, Don’t Avoid

Susan Jeffers, Ph.D. and author of the book Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway, says that avoiding our fears is a surefire way to make certain they won’t go away. In fact, suppressing fear only ensures that it will return again and again to undermine and paralyze us.

Dr. Bernard Katz, a psychologist in Long Island, New York, agrees. “Fear is a normal response to being thrust into the role of caregiver. But caregivers have to learn to acknowledge their thoughts and feelings and to remember that they are people first and caregivers second,” says Dr. Katz.

Much of our fear comes from feeling that we are at the mercy of events beyond our control and helpless to do anything about them. The truth is that as long as we are living and growing, we will face unexpected situations and challenges that frighten us. Accepting that this is a normal fact of life is the first step toward empowering ourselves to overcome the feelings of helplessness and the fears that accompany them.

Play the ‘What If Game’

Instead of pushing our fears away, a more effective approach is to consciously think about what we would do if each one came to pass. I call this playing the “What If Game,” and it works like this: Write down each fear that you have. Then, for each fear expressed, write down a few things that you could do if it became a reality.

For example, to the question, “What if Dad’s health gets worse,” you might respond, “I would ask the doctors to help me understand what happens next.” Or to the question, “What if we start to run out of money for Mom’s care,” you might answer, “Then I would talk to an elder law attorney about our options.”

Even if you don’t know exactly what steps you would take for each situation, simply acknowledging the possibility of what could happen and identifying one or two potential action steps can go a long way toward relieving your fears and helping you feel more empowered.

Dr. Jeffers says it’s human nature to want to wait until our fear goes away before taking action. But ironically, the only way to get rid of our fear of doing something is to go out and do it! The “doing it” comes before the fear goes away, but the doing it also makes the fear go away. So, when fears overwhelm, do something -- anything -- and your fear will automatically begin to diminish.

Have Faith in Yourself

Annette Clement’s friend Bob cares for his wife who has Alzheimer’s and for his 93-year-old mother. Bob told Annette, “I’m very rarely wrong, so when I make a decision, I just stick with it!” Oh, if only we could all be like Bob, with such faith in ourselves and confidence in our decision-making abilities!

At the root of all of our fears is the more basic fear that we won’t be able to handle the situations we may have to face. But the key to conquering fear lies in developing more trust in our ability to handle whatever comes our way. Most of us aren’t as confident as Bob, but we are also a lot more capable than we realize or are willing to admit. Still, there are steps we can take to build up our confidence and reduce our fears:

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Melissa A. Goodwin is a freelance writer and photographer living in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She has years of experience working with volunteer caregiving programs that help seniors and family caregivers. She can be reached at meesarj@msn.com.

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