How to Cope With Guilt After Putting a Parent in a Nursing Home

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Certified Care Manager, Aging Life Care Professional, and National Master Guardian Emeritus

Putting a parent in a nursing home can be fraught with anxiety, guilt, and shame. Your parent may have even told you at some point something along the lines of, “Promise you won’t ever put me in a nursing home.” Nursing home care is a last resort when you have exhausted all other options for safe care and medical management. However, there are methods to cope with guilt after making this decision. 

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A nursing home has round-the-clock care with almost any medical intervention your loved one may need. If your parent needs to go to a nursing home, it can mean several things have occurred. They can’t afford intensive medical care in the home; they have complex medical needs that can’t be provided by home health or home care; their mental status is such that they need close supervision to stay safe.

The process of moving your parent into a nursing home can cause conflict, anger, depression, and frustration. But when you decide, coping with your guilt is necessary for your mental health and your ability to provide the most support you can for your loved one. 

Why Might You Feel Guilty After Putting a Parent in a Nursing Home?

Nursing homes have a negative image that unfortunately is borne from the evidence. Not every nursing home has a bad reputation, but it can be more than that. It’s hard to come to terms with the idea that there are no other options. Let’s look at some of the common reasons you might feel guilty after putting a parent in a nursing home.

You’re worried about the environment

Most nursing homes accept Medicaid for payment due to their high cost. Residents qualify for Medicaid after spending down their assets. Medicaid reimburses nursing homes at a lower rate which impacts the level of care. Most nursing homes are for-profit entities, and lower reimbursement rates combined with nationwide staffing shortages have contributed to cost-cutting. 

Not all, but many nursing homes put two patients in small rooms with little privacy and space to save money. Older nursing homes may not have been upgraded, and they can look shabby and worn. A depressing situation is made worse by an unappealing and uncomfortable environment with little privacy and room for personal items.

There are often infection control challenges

You may be understandably worried about COVID, which disproportionately affected nursing home residents (and continues to do so), or other infections related to poor care and hygiene. 

Gaps in reporting infections to authorities contribute to challenges in picking a good nursing home. If you haven’t selected a nursing home yet, having a list of questions to ask a nursing home might help you choose a better one.

There’s a lack of entertainment or activities

Although there are activities available in nursing homes, they could be limited. If your loved one is bed-bound, getting to activities or outside the facility could be a challenge. The days could be tedious and depressing, and there may not be much you can do about it. It’s hard to know what to do if you’re facing this challenge. 

Your parent might be approaching his or her end-of-life

Not everyone that goes to a nursing home dies there, but many do. Comorbid conditions, severe illness, and physical decline put nursing home residents at risk of dying there. You may be struggling with the possibility of your parent dying somewhere other than their home.

You worry there’s something else you could have done

Part of what might be driving your guilt is the unrelenting idea that you could have done more. You might question your decision and ask yourself if there was anything else you could have done rather than put your parent in a nursing home. While this type of thinking makes sense, you have to trust that you’ve made the best choice for yourself and your parent. 

Tips for Coping With Guilt After Moving Your Parent into a Nursing Home

How can you cope with guilt after moving your parent into a nursing home? Guilt is something you may never eliminate, but you can learn to cope with guilt by following our tips. It’s okay to recognize your complex feelings. This is what makes you human. 

Guilt is healthy and valid

First, guilt is a normal reaction and a healthy response that means you care. Guilt only becomes a problem when it consumes your life and affects your mental and physical health. 

If you lose sleep, struggle to eat, and have feelings of despair and depression, guilt could be having an extreme negative effect. Coping with guilt is learning how to manage it long-term so it doesn’t impact your daily life. 

Accept that your own life has value

You have a life with a family, a job, friends, and interests. Accept that your life has value and that attending to it is important while at the same time caring for your parent. Your parent is at the end of their life, and you still have yours ahead of you. 

It is possible that financial considerations played a part in a nursing home placement for your parent. You may feel guilty that you didn’t contribute financially. Bankrupting your estate does not help your parent’s situation and places a long-term burden on you and your family.

Your parent’s illness is not your fault

You didn’t cause your parent’s decline and illness, and therefore you aren’t responsible for it. Your love, care, concern, and compassion are what you bring to an unfortunate situation that is beyond your control. Don’t burden yourself with things that are out of your control. 

Ask for support when you need it

Support can take many forms. If you are close with siblings or other family members, talk with them about your feelings of guilt. If you have a spouse or partner, you can share your thoughts but take care not to overburden the relationship. 

Counseling is a valuable resource for learning coping skills and talking about unresolved conflicts or issues you may have with your parent. Additionally, you can find support groups for adults with aging parents. 

Focus on your own self-care

Guilt can wreak havoc on your self-care. But an effort to take care of yourself can sustain your physical and mental health and leave your energy to advocate for your parent when you need to. Ideas include getting enough sleep, spending time with other members of your family, exercising, yoga, and meditation. It’s okay to put yourself first. 

How to Be There for Your Parent After Moving Them Into a Nursing Home

As challenging as the situation may seem after moving your parent into a nursing home, there are some ways to be there for them. When you have an action plan, this eases the guilt burdening your heart. 

  • Visit often: Visiting can trigger guilt, but try to get past that feeling and visit as often as possible. Nursing home life can be isolating and lonely. Bring other family members with you, so your parent feels connected and cared for. If you have a family pet and pets are allowed, bring them in. 
  • Advocate: Advocating for a parent in a nursing home may feel like a full-time job. Staff shortages contribute to longer wait times and poor care. Keep a log of any problems and go directly to the department's supervisor that is managing your parent’s care with any concerns. 
  • Look for ways to improve their experience: Bring favorite food, snacks, books, or music. Even if your parent is bed-bound, there is still much they can do and enjoy. If you can get your parent safely out of bed, take them out of the facility or at least outside for a break.
  • Ask how you can help: It may feel like opening Pandora’s box, but ask your parent about how things are going and what can improve. There may be simple tasks you can do or items you can bring that you didn’t think of.

How to Respond When Your Parent Doesn't Like the Nursing Home

Guilt is only made worse when a parent voices their discontent and dislike of a nursing home. They may repeatedly ask to go home. If they don’t like the nursing home, this could be completely normal considering their circumstances, so knowing how to respond won’t change things but will help them feel heard. Here are some ideas on how to respond.

Understand the challenges of dementia

First, for a parent who has dementia, it can be challenging to sort out what is real and what isn’t. Assume that your parent has significant anxiety about being in a nursing home and doesn’t understand why they are there. 

Be reassuring and use a calm and supportive tone. You may need to make frequent visits for the first few weeks. This is also a great opportunity to talk to your parent’s care team. 

Offer a listening ear

Before responding, listen with care and empathy. Try and determine whether the dislike has to do with food, care, roommate, noise, or anything else that might be solvable. 

Let your parent know that you will make every effort to improve their experience. If your parent wouldn’t like any nursing home, all you can do is show concern and compassion for their situation. In many cases, your loved one just wants to feel heard. 

Don’t offer false hope 

You will have to weigh whether this is helpful or not. Some families feel like offering hope is compassionate and gives someone something to look forward to. On the other hand, you may think that providing false hope will set up unreasonable expectations for recovery and a return home.

Consider a move

If your parent has legitimate and ongoing concerns with the nursing home care and you have attempted to rectify those, you might consider changing your parent’s nursing home. Before taking this action, accept that things may or may not be better somewhere new. Moving can also put a strain on your parent’s physical and mental health.

Keep calm and avoid frustration

A parent who repeatedly asks to leave the nursing home can get frustrating. Try not to get angry and change the subject to something else. Continue to make efforts to focus on the positive by talking about family, looking over photographs, or talking about past experiences. 

Guilt After Putting a Parent in a Nursing Home

Guilt is an uncomfortable emotion, but it’s also one that can motivate you. Do everything you can to show care and concern for your parent in a nursing home. Advocate for your parent and try to improve a situation no one wants but is sometimes inevitable. 

Nursing homes can be an amazing resource for those who need hands-on support. They also aren’t always the most pleasant place to live out your Golden Years. Approach your parent with kindness and compassion during this transition. 

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