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A needed vacation from caregiving should be guilt-free

Carol Bursack, Minding Our Elders columnist

Dear Carol: I'm 69 years old and widowed. My 76-year-old single sister has advanced osteoporosis, inflammatory arthritis, and lung disease. I cared for her in my home for more than seven years.

My health is deteriorating and my doctor has warned me that, if I don't change my caregiving situation, I'm in for big health issues. My sister said that she understood, so six months ago she moved into a nursing home. The facility is lovely and the staff is great. The staff members have told me that she has made friends and, considering her health, does very well.

When I observe her, I see that she's great with others, but her attitude toward me has changed. I visit daily and bring her everything she wants, but she piles guilt on me and complains about her life.

Now, I have a chance to take a weeklong trip with a friend to a place I've always wanted to visit. I told my sister about this opportunity and she's pouting. She says to go but then acts hurt. Her caregivers tell me that she'll be just fine. I want to take this trip. It finally a chance for some real fun, but how do I enjoy it under these circumstances? TR

Dear TR: You've done far more for your sister than could be expected. Even though I'm certain that the nursing home staff and your friends have already told you not to feel guilty, I'll tell you again. You have nothing to feel guilty about. What you need to do is internalize this as the truth.

From your description of your sister's health, I'd say that she now requires professional care for her own safety. What you've done is in her best interest as well as yours. She probably knows that but needs someone to blame.

If you accept that your sister is taking her frustration out on you because she knows that you won't desert her, you may find her attitude easier to put up with.

The term "detaching with love" seems to best describe your next step. Counselors often use it when helping people understand that they can't let their loved one's problems destroy their own lives, especially when there is no concrete way that you can change the situation.

Therefore, reaffirm your love for your sister and then try to accept her attitude for what it is — frustration. Separate (detach) your love for your sister from her attitude by reminding yourself that pouting behavior is about her situation and not about you. Detaching from a loved one's problems takes practice, but it is possible, especially when you know that you've done everything that you can to help.

Tell your sister firmly that you are taking the trip. Assure her that you will leave contact information with the nursing home in case of an emergency. Additionally, you could talk with the staff about the advisability of contacting your sister by phone while you are gone. They will likely have an opinion about what is best since they know her.

You may find that, once you have finally left, her pouting won't bother you. Remember that she's likely enjoying herself with her new friends even if she won't admit it to you.

If you continue to have trouble making up your mind, consider having a chat with your faith community leader or a professional counselor. Nearly anyone on the outside of your situation can see that it's necessary for you to have a life apart from your sister's problems.

Taking care of the caregiver is vital. That's all you are trying to do.

Carol Bradley Bursack is the author of a support book on caregiving and runs a website supporting caregivers at She can be reached at