Article originally published in Journey of Aging
Caregiver anger: a topic almost as taboo as sex. We all experience it at some point in the caregiving journey— whether it’s the repetitions, the resistance, our feelings of isolation, or just the unrelenting tasks of care, we hit a wall. Some of us can stay calm and composed for hours, days, or weeks until that one final refusal to bathe, question about going home, or soaked bed. And then the irritability, resentment, and anger come out.
Some of us feel comfortable letting the anger boil over. We hit pillows, sit alone in the car and shout, or take a brisk walk. We vent our frustration to others who know and accept us. Some of us hold in and suppress the anger. In fact, we may not even be aware of it until we hear our irritable response; feel the heat in our face; or notice the clenched fist, stomachache, or headache. We may be as surprised by our sudden anger as the person we care for. It’s a problem when our person with dementia is the target. Our anger can be confusing and scary. If we’ve been suppressing our feelings, our angry outburst can be sudden and out of proportion to the situation. Sometimes our anger can trigger their frustration and anger, creating the danger of escalation and even violence. In the end, we’re usually left feeling guilty and ashamed about our angry responses, realizing that our loved one is not acting out of choice.
Anger is a normal and natural response to the frustrations of dementia and the strains of caregiving. We’re understandably mad at the disease for its impact on our loved one. When caring for a family member, we hate the change in roles and relationship that accompany dementia. We may be angry that others don’t help more or don’t understand the demands of caregiving. We get upset when schedules fall apart and plans go wrong. And we’re likely grieving the many losses associated with dementia, perhaps forgetting that anger is a common and even expected reaction to grief.
"Anger is a normal and natural response to the frustrations of dementia and the strains of caregiving."
It may be helpful to think of anger as neither good nor bad, but as a signal. Our anger is sending a message. It might be telling us that we need a break, that we have some emotional work to do, that we need to adjust our expectations, or that we have reached a turning point in our caregiving. Being aware of our anger early is critical to decoding the message and taking effective steps forward. If we decide that anger is bad and must be ignored or suppressed, we lose the chance to learn.
Here are some suggestions when we’re feeling angry.
Step Back, Take a Break
Stop and catch your breath emotionally. Go to another room, get a drink, take a quick walk—whatever works. Even giving yourself 90 seconds will allow the anger-related physiological reactions to peak and subside.
Engage Your Thinking Brain
Noticing, analyzing, being curious, asking questions, all these can move you out of your emotions and into a more useful problem-solving mode. What triggered the anger? Is it related to a particular activity, situation, or time of day? Am I upset because my expectations about how things should go or when things should happen are not being met? Do I need to remind myself that I’m dealing with my loved one’s disease and not behaviors they would typically choose?
Don’t Feed the Flames
Some of us keep the anger burning by replaying the situation in our minds, imagining angry things we’d like to say, or talking to ourselves about our frustrations and resentments. Instead of allowing the feelings to subside naturally, we feed them with our angry thoughts. Try to notice your thinking and make a different choice.
Help might mean respite during the day, some extended time away, or talking to a professional. It may mean starting the discussion about facility care. We often need others to remind us that limits and boundaries in caregiving are essential and that self-care is not optional. With the help of others, we can begin to interpret the messages that our caregiver anger is sending.