She Who Hesitates Is Not Lost: Four Important Things to Remember about a Reluctant Caregiver

Who Hesitates Is Not Lost

Everyone knows that people who love their jobs do their jobs better than people who do not. We would all rather have the teacher whose love for math pours into their teaching and spreads to the students; the chef who loves cooking and dedicates her life to it will create delicious new dishes and increase her skill; the coach whose life has been all about football will be far superior to someone apathetic about competitive sports.

Life does not always allow us to fill only the roles we love, though, and that is sometimes the case with caregiving. Some are called to caregiving as a profession; others are called to it by necessity in their lives beyond work. Some feel grateful for the task of repaying elders for their efforts; others less so. For those who are reluctant to take up the responsibility of caregiving, here are some comforting thoughts and resources.

The Caregiver Is Not Alone

Many people who find themselves in a situation that requires them to make decisions and offer care to an aging loved one are not happy about it, for many reasons. Some find distance to be an issue; others have demanding careers or familial obligations; others find the emotional burden too great and cannot handle bearing witness to their loved one’s suffering due to health complications. Others find themselves at the end of a legal bungle—the ex-wife whose name was never removed from paperwork, perhaps, ends up being responsible for a former in-law. Still others are obligated by ties of blood but not heart: the estranged child who was never close to a parent finds herself suddenly in charge of that person’s well-being in the elder years–something she never bargained for. 

Others are obligated by ties of blood but not heart: the estranged child who was never close to a parent finds herself suddenly in charge of that person’s well-being in the elder years–something she never bargained for.

Whatever the circumstances that lead to someone reluctant doing the caregiving, that someone is not alone. Caregiving is a huge responsibility; few take it on with unqualified alacrity, and those who do may find themselves struggling as the reality sets in.

Reluctance is not selfishness.

…a sign of realism and emotion in the face of a crisis.

Anyone who is clued in to the difficulty of caregiving will have doubts about their ability to complete the task. A reluctance to take up the mantle is not a sign of selfishness or apathy in the face of someone in need; it is a sign of realism and emotion in the face of a crisis. It may be rooted in logistical issues or emotional ones—blogger Martha Stettinius noted that caring for her mother, a recovering alcoholic, weighed on her, since she had spent most of her teenaged years caring for her mother through addiction.

These reactions are to be expected. Having an increasingly helpless person on one’s hands is going to bend anyone’s life out of shape. It is natural to feel a certain amount of trepidation.

There are ways to get help.

Reaching out to other family members and professionals who are less reluctant is often key to bolstering the situation of the reluctant caregiver. The reluctant caregiver does well to ponder the following questions:

  • Would it be better for the loved one to stay with another relative, especially if the caregiver’s job requires frequent travel or many hours of overtime? Even geographical closeness to the loved one may not offset these other considerations.
  • Can in-home care be utilized to take some of the more upsetting or discomfiting responsibilities, such as bathing or toileting?
  • What plan can be made so that the caregiver’s reluctance does not affect the health or psychological wellbeing of the loved one?
  • Are there caregiver respite programs available nearby that can give periodic breaks from the stress of caregiving?
  • What support groups are available?

There are ways to work through or around reluctance.

As a story by Paula Span published in The New York Times pointed out, some people may feel reluctant with one person or situation and not with another. The article discusses a caregiver who happily cared for her aunt but felt little connection with her mother, whom she also cared for until the mother’s death. In situations of emotional disconnect, caregiving is more a chore than a labor of love, and much caregiving comes down to just that: added chores in lives already full of them. No wonder people sometimes feel reluctant. Love adds an impetus that makes chores easier; without it, caregiving is just one long list of more obligations.

Some caregivers feel guilty that they don’t love their charges more; however, it is important to note that reluctant caregivers are, more often than not, still giving that care regardless of their feelings. That is meritorious in and of itself. Those feelings of guilt, however frequently they appear, are based in an ideal of a perfect model of caregiving rather than its challenging realities. Sometimes caregiving is just work to be done, and, like all work, it is not always joyful.

Acknowledging reluctance and finding safe spaces to share feelings and seek tailored solutions is critical for maintaining health and the health of those cared for. Community services and support groups are vital, whether they are formal and designed specifically for seniors and caregivers or not. Such services and support provide the necessary strength to help reluctant caregivers navigate the challenging world of caregiving and their own feelings about that world.



Miles, Lizzy. (January 15, 2016). Navigating Hospice Care with a Reluctant Caregiver. Available at Retrieved 1/21/2016.

Span, Paula. (February 20, 2013). The Reluctant Caregiver. The New Old Age. The New York Times. Available at Retrieved 1/21/2016.

Stettinius, Martha. (October 22, 2013). I Was a Reluctant Caregiver. Available at Retrieved 1/21/2016.