Aging Parents: Caregiving and Perfection–Incompatible? Anxiety and Stress–more likely

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, HealthbeatTrying 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.”

Q.  Why?

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.”
*              *             *

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.

Some cultures legitimize humans aren’t perfect. Note the deliberate imperfection in the traditional beaded Indian necklace.

Click to enlarge

Related: “Can We Be Perfect When We Try to Help Parents Age Well?

Check out “Newsworthy” (right sidebar). Links to timely tips, information and research from top universities and respected professionals–to help parents age well.

2 thoughts on “Aging Parents: Caregiving and Perfection–Incompatible? Anxiety and Stress–more likely

  1. Susan,

    This post really resonated with me. When I was caregiving for my mother-in-law, I had the unrealistic expectation that my brother and sisters-in-law would have the same standard of commitment as did my husband and I. We set our bar too high (as per the perfectionism you describe). When we finally began setting boundary lines to cope with the ever-increasing demands of caregiving, we were criticized–and that definitely made us feel unappreciated. My mother-in-law passed away over four years ago, and sadly, we have almost no relationship with two of my husband’s siblings, and only a limited relationship with the third.

    By the way, Your Q and A for “Why?” is an integral theme of my book and blog, but I am in the process of winding down from my caregiving advocacy and moving on to new endeavors. This is for more of a reprieve, however, because I am sure there will be more caregiving involvement in my future in one form or another.

    I still appreciate your blog and how you always manage to maintain your positive outlook.


    • I appreciate your comments, Barb, realizing all too well the commonality of caregiving experiences and how we–through blogs and books–try to help others avoid some of the pitfalls and understand they aren’t alone. Hoping your book, What to Do About Mama, is doing just that for many and wishing you the best in your “new endeavors.”

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