Listening to the radio recently, Frank Sinatra’s ‘My Way’ came on. These two lines really stood out for me:
“Regrets, I’ve had a few.
But then again, too few to mention.”
They got me thinking, as I so often do as the anniversary of my dad’s death approaches (9 years ago this April), about the regrets I, and many family carers who have lost a loved one, have.
Regrets, of course, are a natural part of our human existence. Our minds replay events, leaving us wondering if we made the right or wrong decisions, and we are often our own harshest critic. Judging ourselves is largely an unwise use of time and strength, but sometimes those thought-processes hijack us, even many years after events have happened.
My experiences of regrets
For anyone going through feelings of regret at the moment, I thought it might be helpful to share my experiences.
Top of my regrets list is undoubtedly the nine years my dad spent in care homes. I don’t think he would have chosen a care home for himself as he was such a private person, and despite as a family being given no other option by dad’s healthcare team, I wish we’d have advocated more strongly for alternatives (albeit I knew nothing of alternatives like live-in care back then).
I will always regret the time I wasn’t with dad. You can, of course, never be with someone 24/7 even if you live in the same house. Everyone needs a break and time to look after themselves, even if that is only on the most basic level of eating and washing, but it’s still time you cannot get back.
Most of all, of course, I regret dad ever developing dementia. Not something I could have done anything about, but a hugely important reason for me to continue to champion the value of research into the causes of dementia and improved treatments, all of which BRACE – for whom I am an ambassador – work towards.
Minimising the chances of regrets
What about how to minimise the chances of regrets though? Caring for a loved one is often such an intense experience that we can’t see our way through the haze of the day-to-day at the time, and can be left with the weight of regrets on our shoulders later on.
I’m very lucky to have been able to speak to many families either going through or having gone through the experience of dementia, and common themes around avoiding and coping with regrets are:
- Don’t leave things unsaid. I’m lucky, I was brought up to express emotions and feelings, so my dad was always told how much I loved him. Not everyone feels comfortable expressing or talking about emotions, however, and finding the right words or ways to express feelings doesn’t come naturally to everyone.
However hard it is for you or someone you know, my advice is to find those ways to communicate somehow. It is especially important if your loved one is unwell, or approaching the end of their life. You may feel hugely uncomfortable. You may grapple with your words, break down. But do it. Tell the person how much they mean to you, and try to resolve anything that’s remained unsaid. One of the biggest regrets many people have after a loved one has died is not having those conversations and knowing they will never be able to now.
- Try to plan in advance the care and support options the person wants for themselves. Again, it’s a really tough conversation, but by doing this you might avoid my regret of my dad living his last years out in care homes that, in hindsight, I don’t think he would have wanted. This resource from My Care Matters is a great tool for helping with advance care planning conversations.
- The next step to minimising regrets is to find the strength to advocate for a loved one, especially if they can no longer advocate for themselves. If you aren’t a naturally confident person, this may pose a huge challenge, but most people I’ve spoken to never regret putting their head above the parapet. Regrets usually come from having not done so.
- Aligned with the theme of advocacy, of course, is to be well-informed. This means doing your research. Knowing yours and your loved ones options and rights. Understanding the health conditions they are living with. Knowing what health and care choices are available to them. Understanding best practice in the care of their symptoms.
People often regret a lack of knowledge that means decisions were taken that in hindsight they wouldn’t have supported. They also regret things they may have done themselves as a carer or a family member that they wish they hadn’t done. It may be impossible for you to find the time to do the research or learning you need to if you are caring for a loved one full-time, so consider restorative (respite) services, even if it’s just for a few hours every week, to give yourself the space to become more informed. This blog I wrote for Care Choices about respite care may help.
Be kind to yourself
Ultimately of course, we cannot regret-proof our life. That’s perhaps why the line, “But then again, too few to mention,” was put right after, “Regrets, I’ve had a few.”
As I’ve alluded to already, time and energy is expended exponentially with regrets. They are things we can’t change. History cannot be rewritten. But, at the same time, I am a great believer in expressing – rather than bottling up – the things that bother us most deeply in our hearts and minds, and regrets definitely fall into this category for many people. Don’t let any you have gnaw away at you – talk to someone (a friend or family member, phone a mental health/bereavement/support helpline or speak to a trusted professional, like your GP).
Knowing what others may have regretted in the past can help if you’re currently going through some really tough and emotional times caring for a loved one. And if you’re a person with regrets, be kind to yourself. Remember to balance up your regrets by considering the things you don’t regret; the sacrifices you may have made, the decisions you are happy with, and ultimately for trying your best, which is the most any of us can ever do.
Until next time…