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Posted: October 01, 2007

Practical Caregiving

Escaping from Your Feelings

Being "trapped" in your caregiving is a common feeling that feels like you’ll never escape. That’s not the literal case, of course, but the feeling is strong enough to be overpowering. Add alcohol to your loved one’s list of problems and the haunting of a deathbed promise to take care of them, and these feelings mushroom.

Bonnie knows this feeling very well. She’s asking for some direction in her email to me. Let’s see if I can help.


Dear Jean: 

I’m really feeling trapped and helpless. My father died a few months ago after caring for my mother for several years. I took over her care and moved her to my home after his death. I'm married and an only child with no relatives here to help me. I stopped working in order to care for my mother and it is hurting us financially.

The problem is that my mother's illness is mental, not physical. For many years she was an alcoholic who rarely left the house. Now she hasn’t left her bed for several years, but the doctors say the problem is in her mind, not her body. Of course, her muscles have atrophied from lack of use, and now she probably can’t walk. The doctor referred a physical therapist who came to our house, but Mom fired him rather quickly.

As I look back over my childhood, I realize that she must have had mental problems that Dad covered up. I don't know what to do with her. Before Dad died he asked me to take care of her, and I said I would. I need some help but I don't know where to turn to or go. Can you tell me of some resources?

Bonnie G., San Francisco

Dear Bonnie:

Being a family caregiver for a parent is probably one of the most difficult things you will do in your life. You are dealing with your own feelings as well as those of the rest of your family, your mother's problems as well as your own feelings about those problems. Whatever the problems are with our parents (and they are different with each parent) they seem to get worse as they get older.

I hope you realize how blessed you are that your father covered up your mother’s problems as you were growing up and that you don’t have her problems.

I do want you to know that your feelings of frustration, etc., are completely normal. Absolutely every family caregiver has those feelings. After all, you don't want to be in this situation, you don't want your mother to be sick but you can't do anything about it, you have to face your mother as someone other than the mother you knew all your life, you can't make things better for her, and so on. Then, on the other hand, you feel guilty for feeling this way because you actually want to take care of her. Try not to let these conflicting feelings get to you but remember that they are perfectly normal.

First of all, taking care of your mother does not have to mean that you do it all yourself. It just means that you agreed to make sure she gets the best care you can provide for her. The best care may not require you to do it -- but it may be you overseeing her care. If you keep her at home, there may come a time when you can't do what she needs done and you will have to put her in some sort of institution despite your best efforts. Why don’t you find out what is available in your area, just so you know your options.

If your mother doesn't care enough to take the steps necessary to get better, there is absolutely nothing you can do to make her work toward getting better. If you want to dig deeper into the whys of her not wanting to get better, talk to her doctor. He may have suggestions. It is possible the basic cause of your mother not wanting to get out of bed is the same cause that made her start drinking. You also might want to talk to someone at Alcoholics Anonymous.

It’s clear to me that you do need to get help into the house. Try calling local churches to see if they know of people that help people in your situation so you can take a short break. There are some people who enjoy helping the family caregiver, and sometimes they don’t charge. Call the social worker at a hospital, nursing homes, and any other place you can think of to ask about "respite" care. Look in the Yellow Pages for home health care agencies. You can hire someone to come out, or the government may pay for help. Ask your mother's doctor if he knows of any help you can get. The home care agencies work with doctors, and he would probably sign the necessary papers for government assistance, if you need it and qualify.

Call the U.S. Administration on Aging toll-free phone line at 800-677-1116 Monday through Friday 9:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. (ET). They will refer you to the office in your state to contact. Some states are starting to actually pay relatives to take care of their loved one. They may pay you to take care of your mother, although this is fairly new and may not help you. Be sure to ask if they know of any other place that may help you or your mother.

Also, go to and run your mother's information through their system. It does not ask for any identifying information such as Social Security number or name. It will give you places to check to see if your mother qualifies for any help you have not thought of.

Good luck and please let me know what you find out.



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