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5 Tips to Cope with Caregiver Anger

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February 4, 2016

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 screaming?

Or what about when your formerly sweet wife suddenly hits you in the face with her fist as you are trying to dry her off after a shower? If it’s the first time she’s done this, you might shrug it off. But what about the tenth time? Or the twentieth? Do you feel like shouting “stop that!” at her?

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 later?

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 them.

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 considerably.

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.

Beyond anger, you probably deal with a wide variety of emotions, including fear and grief. Get tips for managing the emotional fallout of caregiving.

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Thoughts and stories from others
  1. November 20, 2017 at 5:55 pm | Posted by Sandra

    I get so disgusted with mom when she spits out food. She takes over an hour to eat a meal, and will create a mess to clean up every time. There's food on the floor, on herself, sometimes even in her drink. I try to console myself that she's doing it to protect herself from choking--not aware that's true but it's a story I tell myself--but it still just hits me as horrible table manners and more work for me.


  2. November 10, 2017 at 1:56 pm | Posted by Wendy

    My mother is on Hospice and wants to live at home. My father is her care giver and has Alzheimer's and struggles with his challenging behaviors. This information is somewhat helpful but then again not really. She can not leave, she is living room/bedroom bound. This is just making her more depressed. My father refuses to get tested or help for this. Its hard because one minute he says "I'm old , you forget things" and then the next minute he denies ever saying any words like that. I just dont know how to help anymore.


  3. November 8, 2017 at 5:40 pm | Posted by Lisa

    All my mother's siblings (7) are now gone and their spouses. There is no one left to call my mom and I feel so sad for her. She is 91 1/2, and she was not the youngest. She is blind from advanced glaucoma, has had a stroke, and most recently came down with shingles. My hubby and I have been caring for her since 2009, the year her husband died. She has lived with us for almost 3 years now and we are at the end of our ropes. Our marriage is suffering, my mental and physical health is suffering and I wonder if she will outlive us. I have thrown things, hit pillows, screamed in pillows, cried to my siblings, cursed at my siblings and have prayed. Why me? Because I thought and acted with my heart and not my brain. A home would have been a better place for her but I did not have the heart to place her in one, especially since she is blind. I do look forward to not being a caregiver anymore - someday. When that day comes, I hope to remember all the good days and the love we have for each other. I plan on telling my siblings to lose my number. I don't ever want to hear from them again. Maybe in time I will be able to forgive them for not helping like they promised they would.


    • November 20, 2017 at 6:02 pm | Posted by Sandra

      A nursing home still can be a better place for her and for you. Can you open your mind to that possibility?


  4. November 8, 2017 at 2:32 pm | Posted by Carol Rost

    Thank you so much for these comments. My husband died on October 1st, 2017. He had Lewy Body Dementia. Seven years ago he was diagnosed with bladder cancer. His bladder was removed and was cancer free for seven years. However, following the surgery, he suffered many set backs. Infections and more surgeries. He had a urostomy and an ileostomy. Seven surgeries in all. Each one accelerated the dementia. I was pretty much housebound with him The last two years. He never got mean, but was hard to handle at times and because he wandered. One day he couldn’t wake up. I took him to the hospital. He was there for two weeks. I was told he needed 24/7 care. He didn’t have long term insurance. I found a private assisted living house. He was only there furcsix days. He passed peacefully. As bad as the journey was, reading what other people went through, helps me realize it could alway be worse. I feel bad remembering what he went through and fot the times I felt sorry for myself and responded to some situations in anger. I lost the man I fell in love with, a long time before he passed. I miss the man he was before dementia stoke him.


  5. November 3, 2017 at 5:05 pm | Posted by Liz Wolf

    Sounds like my husband. End stage Lung cancer with brain mets. He says whatever he feels like, calls everybody lazy, curses up a storm at everybody about everything, tells me to "get over it" if I wince in pain when I lift him. Our house is at nearly 80F all the time, and I burn up, have sweat sores from constantly being so hot. I am taking care of him 24/7. Family members work long hours to help us out financially, and he forbids me to bring in a hospice volunteer to relieve me for a while. "They are volunteers because they want to come in people's homes, scope them out, and then come rob them. Once he asked for his gun when the hospice social worker was due to arrive. He looks for his wallet constantly, because he thinks I will steal his credit cards. This has been constantly getting worse since his diagnosis in Dec 2015.On days when he is lucid, it gets worse, because then he turns on the news and spews his political views (which are not exactly mine) and tells me to go live elsewhere, he won't have no hippy-commy freak living in his house. Then he asks for me to bring him a juice.So to all who talk about the "loved-ones" and soothing words and playing soft music - you all are blessed.My whole family died of cancer, and all of my relatives were gentile people til the last day. We had laughter and joy, and memories. This man's behavior makes me muster ALL my patience. He hit me once when I told him that he was out of line and he told me to pack ... it was an invitation that I was surely considering. But 42 years ago, I said "for better or worse, until the bitter end," and I meant it.P.S. He once was the love of my life and I guess I am drawing from that memory, old pictures ...


  6. April 9, 2017 at 5:47 pm | Posted by Shelley

    Hello, I need tips for caring for my mother who swears loudly , voices insulting comments for all to hear. She fixates on things like bad tasting food, who cut my tree down, who cut my hair , not liking a caregiver . She makes racial slurs, threatens to sue people. I try to remove her from the situation... like taking her outside...a new tv program... but this doesn't always work or some times not possible. It is very embarrassing and I am in fear of losing caregivers because of her behavior. It happens at various times of day. My mother recognizes family , can still reason so telling a fib doesn't work because she will ask so many questions until my answer sounds foolish. We do try to de -escalate situations before it gets really bad but we aren't always successful. Sometimes I leave with tears in my eyes and or with frustration and anger. Any tips?


    • April 17, 2017 at 4:59 pm | Posted by Home Instead

      You may find some helpful tips in the Dementia Support Network to help manage your mother's challenging behaviors. It sounds like you are on the right track trying to remove her from the situation or redirect her attention to something else. Make sure the caregivers you hire are trained and experienced with challenging behaviors like your mother is exhibiting. Professional care help should be a respite for you to get away from the situation for a little while.


  7. April 6, 2017 at 1:27 pm | Posted by Shelley Hunt

    Try fifteen years and no end in sight.


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