Difficult Emotions in Caregiving

Caregivng can provide many positive emotions, both for those who are providing care, and for those who are receiving care. Caregivers report feelings of closeness, appreciation, love, and sense of purpose and meaning in being able to provide care. Yet caregiving can be stressful both emotionally and physically. Many caregivers also report struggling with difficult emotions, particularly as the care recipient’s needs increase. Other factors such as family dynamics, age of the caregiver, finances, and type of illness can also negatively affect caregivers’ ability to cope with difficult emotions. Some of these emotions are an inevitable part of the caring process. However, if unchecked, these emotions can lead to burnout, depression, abuse of care recipient, substance abuse, physical health problems, and/or premature placement of the care recipient.

Caregivers can be reluctant to ask for help in dealing with difficult emotions. They may mistakenly believe that these emotions are a sign they are selfish, lack personal capacity, or are doing something wrong. They may feel that reaching out to others, much less service providers, is an indication of weakness or an invasion of their privacy. Caregivers may not be able to admit to themselves they are experiencing these emotions, or feel overwhelmed by them. All of these reasons can increase the inherent challenges for service providers in identifying and addressing the impact of these emotions.

“As a caregiver I put everybody else ahead of me and I get lost. I resent that nobody has come and said “help is out there”. (Caregiver)

“There’s the grief of losing the person, even when you feel relief”. (Caregiver)

“It’s the notion of sacrifice – you bring in all your own emotions to the caregiving process and you’re not allowed to express them. And you’re supposed to be able to support the [care receivers] even though there’s nothing to support you”. (Caregiver)

“It’s hard when the person you care for who has dementia start having erratic behaviours, including shoplifting. And when I’m dealing with the aftermath of that, there’s a stigma on me like I’m not doing a good enough job. I’m angry, and I’m frustrated, and there’s no one to talk about it”. (Caregiver)

The good news is that many of these negative effects can be avoided or attenuated with early intervention. That means ensuring that caregivers get evaluated and offered help, just as care recipients do.

Tensions for Service Providers:

Caregivers may direct their emotions at service providers, particularly regarding frustrations about desired levels of support. Service providers may have difficulties in not taking these emotions personally. Alternatively caregivers may express unwillingness to discuss any difficult emotions or their potential impacts, making it challenging for service providers to provide appropriate services. Service providers may also experience difficult emotions stemming from their daily work including:

  • Frustrations about workload, resource constraints, and other system issues
  • Personal dislike of certain clients, caregivers and/or colleagues
  • Their inability to “fix” all the problems they are faced with
  • Moral distress and/or exhaustion from witnessing suffering
  • Common unavoidable triggers (family dynamics, challenging behaviours, etc.)

Unchecked, these emotions can negatively impact the well-being of service providers, including: burnout, depression, substance abuse, and seeking out other forms of employment. These emotions can also impact your ability as a service provider to provide appropriate support. Caregivers experiencing difficult emotions who do not have support may become abuse to the care recipient, leading to legal and ethical issues for service providers.

Tips and resources to manage difficult emotions

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