Question: Some of the insults that are said to me as a son-in-law today, with dementia in the picture, are insults from the past. I find it hard not to react in a knee jerk reaction, especially when the insults take me by surprise.
Dr. Amy: One of the biggest differences between family and professional caregivers is that family caregivers have a history with the person they are caring for that may contain a number of ups and downs . Being a family caregiver can be a richly rewarding experience. It can also be painful and challenging—all in the same day! With dementia in the picture, behavior that caused pain in the past may be more freely expressed when filters and self-control break down.
I am sorry that you are being wounded all over again. Once the hurtful words are spoken it is hard not to feel the impact. But perhaps the pain can be lessened. I encourage you to consider the following strategies—depending on the specific situation.
First, it’s important to remind yourself that the person uttering the insults is not the person who said those things years before. Their brain function has been weakened and they do not have the same cognitive power and control. By not reacting to the insults, you demonstrate your understanding of this fact. Hopefully this also means that you will not feel the words as keenly either.
Quickly redirect the conversation to a more pleasant topic.
Assuming safety is not compromised, you can always walk away if redirection doesn’t work. That way, you do not have to listen to the insults and you can take a few minutes to regain your balance. When you return they will have moved onto something new.
Having someone you can share your experience with—someone who will lend a sympathetic ear, support and uphold you—can help ease your pain and frustration. Do you have a solid support network of friends and family? Do you know others who are experiencing challenges with caregiving? Even if you do, you might benefit from joining a support group.