When we think about helping parents age well, don’t we think about doing our best? Are anxiety and stress automatic byproducts? According to a Harvard Medical School publication, Healthbeat, “Trying to be Perfect Can Cause Anxiety” (4/4/15).
“Perfectionism may be a strong suit or a stumbling block, depending on how it’s channeled,” clinical psychologist Jeff Szymanski explains…..“The core of all perfectionism is the intention to do something well,” says Dr. Szymanski. “If you can keep your eye on intention and desired outcome, adjusting your strategy when needed, you’re fine….” He then discusses extreme perfectionism and priorities.
Three years ago “Our Quest for Perfection as We Try to Help Parents Age Well,” highlighted our Senior Advisor, psychiatrist Dr. Bud, thoughtfully explaining some of the emotional obstacles that can block the most devoted caregiver’s quest for perfection. I copy the Q and A:
Q. Dr. Bud, should we give up expecting perfection?
A. “Caregivers can’t expect perfection…perfection isn’t the major issue. They may hit a home run doing an optimal job and still not be appreciated…They can try to make it as good as they can–but it’s difficult (especially early on when parents need help) to comprehend how parents feel. Adult children can expect something to be helpful, when it may not be. Also sometimes parents are hard to help–they can frustrate us….. then we don’t do our best–or we avoid–because of the ambivalence we’re feeling.”
Q. Is it culture or our psychological make-up that causes our stress and regret?
A. “Our motivation may be a desire to make up for things we didn’t do and should have done;” or it may involve a reassessment: The thought of losing a parent can make us want to back up and redo.”
Q. Do we, perhaps, place unrealistic expectations on ourselves– especially when we feel responsibility for aging parents?
A. “As caregivers, we expect success–we expect our actions will result in a more comfortable end-of-life experience. But we may think it’s not turning out that way.”
A. “Because there’s an expectation that what we’re doing is going to be received with gratitude and that’s not always the case. Disappointment isn’t failure.
“There can be resentment and disappointment with–or shown by–siblings, which interferes with our doing things the way we would like. While discussing allocation of responsibilities with siblings early on can be tricky (the one who lives closest feels “put upon,” for example), getting it out on the table before-hand is a good idea and can relieve stress later on.
“Be aware of unrealistic expectations: We can’t expect everything to go the way we think it should–or expect other family members to do things the way we think they should. Good communication among family members plays a large role in alleviating stress and regret.”
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In sum, as caregivers we can’t expect perfection. While we may prefer striving for perfection, Psychology Today says for perfectionists “life’s a fast track to unhappiness.” And Dr. Bud cautions “Be aware of unrealistic expectations.”
We live in an imperfect world. Stress and anxiety accompany responsibility–and heaven knows caregivers have and feel responsibility. When we’re doing our best, remember Grandma’s saying “Angels can do no more.” And should anxiety and stress become overwhelming we need to get help (as an individual or in a group) from a social worker, psychologist, or psychiatrist; or we need respite, or help from professional caregivers. It’s the best way to help parents age well–until the end.
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