En español | "I don't like to see other couples our age walking down the street holding hands,” Barbara, a 75-year-old spousal caregiver, admitted to me during one of our psychotherapy sessions. “Seeing them makes me feel bad.” Her tone was nearly apologetic. She didn't want to begrudge them their joy in being together. Instead, she was expressing the pain of no longer being able to take carefree strolls with her homebound husband, who has late-stage dementia.
When human beings resent what other people have or can do because they feel deprived or inferior in comparison, we call that envy. Known in the Bible as one of the seven deadly sins and in Shakespeare's Othello as “the green-eyed monster,” it is a common, sometimes unsettling emotion in family caregiving. Envious caregivers often wish their situation were as good as someone else's or even that illness and disability had befallen another person's relative.
Family caregiver envy comes in many forms. Adult children whose parents are frail and need lots of help are envious of friends whose parents are hale, hearty and independent. Caregivers who must leave jobs to undertake caregiving duties are envious of colleagues able to pursue their career dreams. Caregivers tending to loved ones with advanced dementia often feel envy toward those dealing with its early stages. Those without family support are envious of those with it. Care recipients have envy, too. I've heard of several who say to their family caregivers, “You can still drive and go anywhere you want. I can't."
Feeling envy was a problem for Barbara, as it is for many family caregivers, in two respects. She was brought up to never be envious toward others, and she felt guilty that she couldn't prevent herself from having this reaction. To avoid that guilt, she turned down many offers of help from longtime friends whose husbands were well. Barbara missed her friends, and while she would have loved having their support, she couldn't stand hearing about or even imagining the wonderful things they were doing and places they were going with their healthy spouses.
How can family caregivers manage these feelings and not pull away from others? Here are some ideas.
Accept the tendency to compare
We know we aren't supposed to try to “keep up with the Joneses.” But according to the psychological field of social comparison theory, almost all of us, whether we admit it or not, judge our lives by comparing ourselves to our peer groups — friends of the same age, neighbors on our block, people we went to school with. When we think we are doing better than them, we feel good about ourselves; conversely, we feel bad when we believe they are luckier, richer, better looking or more accomplished. Family caregivers are just as prone to making these comparisons as everyone else. Feeling guilty about that normal human tendency only adds to their overall distress.
Attend to the underlying grief
Though envy is normal, it is not as helpful to caregivers’ psychological adjustment as other emotions can be. Dementia caregivers, such as Barbara, are slowly losing the people they knew, the relationships they had, and the lives they shared before they needed to provide care. Grieving these losses effectively requires feeling sad, not being consumed with envy. In the long run, it doesn't matter to family caregivers what others may have that they no longer do. What matters is how well they can mourn and accept what's been lost, and more squarely face the difficult challenges in front of them.
Recruit, not compare
Others’ charmed lives shouldn't be a source of pain for envious caregivers; they should provide hope that there may be support available. Non-caregivers, unencumbered by caregiving duties, are fair game to reach out to for help. And when those non-caregivers volunteer to assist with tasks, caregivers should quickly agree. After Barbara declined her friends’ offers, she only felt more isolated, not better protected from grief. When she later took their phone calls and allowed them to help her, they didn't rub her face in their good fortune by bragging about their vacations; they were sensitive to her situation.
Find new self-appreciation
The best antidote to caregiver envy, though, is greater self-regard. Lots of caregivers who have mastered caregiving's many challenges find that making a significant difference for someone they love has led to increased gratification and a greater sense of purpose. They may still compare themselves to others but perhaps only to note that non-caregivers haven't yet had the opportunity to step up, muster their strengths and prove their mettle.
Barry J. Jacobs, a clinical psychologist, family therapist and healthcare consultant, is the co-author of Love and Meaning After 50: The 10 Challenges to Great Relationships — and How to Overcome Them and AARP Meditations for Caregivers (Da Capo, 2016). Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.