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Avoiding the Caregiver Trap

Tips for Activity Directors


Avoiding the Caregiver Trap

Over extending your limits as a caregiver could be unhealthy for you and for residents.

Andrew Bret Wallis

According to Melody McHugh of Comfort Keepers®, the caregiver trap is a term that describes that place in a human relationship where we feel trapped into doing something for a client when know we should not. Activities directors can get sucked into that trap. In this article we look at how to balance your caregiving and knowing your boundaries.

Let's start with an example. Mary, the activity director of a large assisted living facility, sees Roger every day. They greet each other in the dining room as the smell of hot coffee and sizzling bacon fills the air and later at the morning gathering of the current events group.

After lunch, he never misses chair dancing at 2 p.m. and often helps set up for the weekly movie shown after Friday’s dinner. Rogers always has a smile, sometimes a joke, and is always seated next to his wife Rosie.

On first glance a visitor might think, “What a nice couple.” And often Mary is asked, “How long have Roger and Rosie lived in your community?” Her answer, “Roger doesn’t live here. He lives at home, but spends every day visiting with his wife of 57 years, Rosie, who is a resident in our memory unit.”

Such love and devotion impresses visitors and it is a true blessing activity directors witness every day in communities throughout the country. However, to the trained eye, Roger and Rosie are also a deep concern because caring for caregivers such as Roger is a complicated problem, according to McHugh.

“We see it all the time. Husbands or wives are so devoted to their spouses’ care that they lose all their other social connections,” said.

“Husbands stop going to meet their buddies at the American Legion or the wife stops meeting her friends for breakfast after Sunday services because they feel guilty leaving their spouse alone in a long term care setting. They promised ‘for better or for worse’ and they will do it even at the loss of their own active lives and sometimes their health. And when the spouse dies, the caregiver spouse is alone and doesn’t know how to reconnect to their former lives.”

The act of care giving became a way of life for the caregiver. Over the years, boundaries were lost and the two people became one life. This caregiver dilemma is a problem for the loved ones of the residents activity directors serve and can also be a problem for staff, she said. Activity directors can often fall into the caregiver traps that many families experience.

“Professionals are provided with training on maintaining boundaries with clients and enforcing them. What instructors often fail to teach professionals is how to maintain and enforce boundaries with a client you might spend more time with than your own family. If you work at a long-term care facility you spend on average 8 hours a day of your life with the same clients every day. Every day you greet those clients, you talk with them about their life and yours, and you are in relationship with human beings.”

As a result of these relationships, she said, activity directors try to maintain boundaries, but then "it" happens.

“The client gets sick and has no family so you spend extra time off clock or you bring something special to him or her. The client heals and then expects it from you all the time. When you cannot do it, you explain it was one time thing, the client may get sad which makes you feel guilty, awkwardness sets in and now you have boundary issues with this client,” McHugh said.

Here are some tips on creating safe boundaries:

  • Limit the amount of personal information you share with the residents and families. One way to prevent sharing too much information is to change the subject or when asked a question about your personal life, turn the conversation back on the resident. For example, a resident asks, “Do you have any children?” If you choose to answer and say “Yes, I have two” and quickly turn the conversation back to the resident and say, “How many children do you have?” and try to get him or her talking about children and grandchildren, McHugh said.

  • “Check with your co-worker before you do something extra for a client on your day off or your bring him or her something. Checks and balances with co-workers is always a healthy way to make a decision when it comes to boundaries. A co-worker may counsel you and remind you about what happened to the last staff person who helped this particular client,” she said.

  • Leave your emotional baggage at home. “Be careful you don’t begin to project feelings you have for your own mother or father onto the client you are taking care of. This can sometimes be dangerous for you and you may begin to react to certain behaviors especially with clients who are suffering from memory impairment. Often they lose their impulse control and say mean and hurtful things.”

Comfort Keepers® was founded in 1998 and has grown to more than 600 franchised locations around the world by staying true to the founders' goal of providing quality, caring in-home care services that allow clients the opportunity to age in place.

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