How do you react when your senior parent or spouse asks you what day
it is for the thousandth time that morning? Do you sometimes feel like
In a best-case scenario, caring for a senior loved one would bring
the two of you together in an intimate bond, providing memories you
could cherish long after they’re gone. But all too frequently, the
rigors of caregiving combined with the erratic behaviors exhibited by
seniors with dementia or other health issues can lead caregivers to feel
rage and other so-called “negative” emotions.
One member of the Remember for Alzheimer’s Facebook community put it this way:
“I hope and wish that my wife’s dementia had brought us closer
together. It hasn’t. In fact, she blames me for her present limitations,
weeps, complains, hits me and does little (in my opinion) to help
herself. While I realize this behavior is all disease-inspired, it has
become increasingly hard for me not to feel anger, disgust and
resentment. I have become a full-time caregiver to a person who looks
like my wife but has become an angry, disgruntled stranger.”
Dementia is not the only condition that can cause changes in a
senior’s behavior. Medical conditions like stroke—or even the side
effects of a medication—can alter a senior family member’s personality
and ability to reason. Stubbornness and irrationality on the part of a
senior can create a perfect storm of impatience and anger in a family
caregiver. When you spend all your energy getting your loved one to
shower and use the bathroom, only to find feces smeared on the walls
later that evening, you might feel like blowing your stack in fury.
“Just when I thought my day was finally over, now I get to spend another
hour cleaning up this disgusting mess!”
When family caregivers open up about their emotions, they are quick
to talk about their feelings of stress, sadness and depression. But they
don’t often talk about the anger, impatience and even rage that can
flare in an instant. Who hasn’t snapped once or twice during their
caregiving journey and then relentlessly beat themselves up for it
If you have ever felt like clenching your fists and screaming in
frustration, you are not alone. Most caregivers probably experience
these strong emotions from time to time. The key lies in coping with
Tip One: Forgive Yourself
Don’t expect yourself to maintain a perfectly patient attitude at all times. This is unrealistic. Human beings are not perfect.
If you experience an episode of impatience or anger, forgive
yourself. Try to give yourself credit for the thousands of times you
have exhibited great patience—and for the hours and hours of loving care
you provide to your senior family member.
Tip Two: Think Like a Toddler
If you are caring for a three-year-old, you probably do not shout
angrily at them because they cannot comprehend the concept of waiting
another two hours for dinner. Instead, you likely re-direct their
attention and give them a snack.
Toddlers display very little self-regulation, and they can’t follow
any sort of complex logic. Seniors with cognitive issues can exhibit
this type of behavior, too.
Your parent, spouse or other senior family member obviously is not a
child—and you should always strive to treat them with the dignity and
respect you reserve for adults. But their cognitive function may
correlate more closely to that of a toddler than an adult.
If your senior loved one is driving you crazy in the moment, ask
yourself how you would treat a toddler in the same situation. You may
find you have more patience at the thought of dealing with a small child
who is having a tantrum than you can muster for coping with an adult
displaying the same behavior.
Tip Three: Get Something to Eat
Speaking of tantrums, anyone who has raised children knows the
highest probability for a meltdown occurs in the late afternoon, when a
child is hungry. This is partly due to a natural drop in blood sugar
levels that occurs when a person hasn’t eaten for a few hours. Low blood
glucose levels can impair your coping ability.
You can help yourself and your senior family member avoid a potential
afternoon meltdown by eating a healthy snack together. Ideally, aim to
eat something every three hours to maintain your blood sugar levels. You
might find your ability to cope with the stress of caregiving improves
Tip Four: Go Ahead—Punch a Pillow
Sometimes, physically ventilating your rage can be very therapeutic.
If you’re “having a moment,” feel free to excuse yourself and go scream
into a pillow. Or punch the pillow, if it makes you feel better.
As a longer-term strategy, consider increasing the amount of exercise
you get. Physical activity is a well-known mood booster, so any time
you can get some exercise it should help reduce your overall stress
level-and possibly your anger, too.
Tip Five: Take Time Off
Easier said than done, right?
Remember: you can’t draw from an empty well. Often, impatience and
anger stem from exhaustion. Caregiving can sap your strength mentally,
and it can have negative effects on your physical health if it disrupts
your sleep or eating habits.
If you cannot tap other family members to take over the caregiving duties for a day or more, consider hiring a professional caregiver .
For a small fee, you can recoup some peace of mind, regain your
perspective and fill up your well of patience. Taking time away from
caregiving benefits both you and your senior loved one.
Lastly, don’t feel guilty if you experience anger, impatience,
disgust or any of the other “negative” emotions during your caregiving
journey. Sometimes, just acknowledging these feelings can dissipate
them. Enlist a trusted confidante who is willing to hear your
frustration and anger without judging you or trying to fix the problem.
You might find this strategy alone allows you to cope much better with
the unpleasant emotions that can accompany caregiving.
Home Instead offers free monthly newsletters with tips and advice for caregivers of elderly loved ones.
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