What Really Stresses Out Family Caregivers?

By Michelle Seitzer / Posted on 07 December 2012

“Caregivers do what needs to be done, even when they don’t have a comfort level.” Do these words resonate with you? No matter who you are caring for, helping a loved one with intimate personal care tasks (like bathing, grooming, or using the toilet) is probably the hardest part of the job, and Dr. Rhonda Montgomery has a sound theory on why this is so.

Montgomery, who is the Helen Bader Endowed Chair in Applied Gerontology at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, calls it identity discrepancy, which she believes is “the hidden source of stress for family caregivers.” She explains the concept, using the everyday example of a rubber band, in this short video:

The Hidden Source of Stress for Family Caregivers: IDENTITY DISCREPANCY from CareConscious on Vimeo.

Adjusting personal rules and expectations, and the change in roles that are often required in a caregiving relationship, are what causes tension and stress, says Montgomery. A daughter may have no problem helping her mother with her shopping, since it’s an activity they probably used to do together. But when it comes to bathing her, the shift in roles is much more dramatic.

Using the rubber band illustration, Montgomery suggests that caregivers often have to change their rules (I don’t want to get involved in my mother’s finances; that’s her business) and modify their expectations (Mom may go bankrupt if I don’t intervene; I have to do something) to ease the tension — to prevent the rubber band from snapping or breaking. They must accept that the relationship has changed. They must rethink the relationship and their role in this new context. In some cases, if the tension is too great but something needs to be done (for example, in the case of a loved one’s finances), the caregiver may need to consider seeking outside help.

Your turn: Would you agree with Dr. Montgomery’s assessment? How have you adjusted expectations in a family caregiving relationship?


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