Family Caregivers: Is your Self-Respect Intact?

by Joy Loverde:  Author of the best seller, The Complete Eldercare Planner: Where to Start, Questions to Ask, How to Find Help (Random House, Updated and Revised, 2009).  “The book is the best we saw,” says the AMA. Joy serves as a consultant to employers, manufacturers, senior housing administrators, and other members of the fast-growing eldercare industry. She is a keynote speaker and has delivered presentations to renowned organizations such as National Institutes of Health among numerous others. During her career, she has been quoted in the Wall Street Journal, Money Magazine, Chicago Tribune, Family Circle, Good Housekeeping, Working Woman and others. USA TODAY ran a four-part series on her eldercare programs.  Joy is regular on television and radio and has appeared on the Today Show and CBS Early Show.

Family caregivers are awesome. From staying up all night with worry to managing complex day-to-day care, there doesn’t seem to be anything they wouldn’t do to ensure the safety and security of elderly loved ones.  Undoubtedly, eldercare is nothing less than a labor of love and hard work — physically and emotionally. 

Things being what they are when it comes to caring for aging parents and loved ones, it is beyond my comprehension why a family caregiver would allow their care receiver — be it parent, spouse, partner, or friend  — to get away with making remarks to and about them that are purposefully mean, degrading, and hurtful. 

As a long-time family caregiver advocate, I’ve heard it all. “My father calls me names and tells me I’m a terrible daughter.” “Mom says I don’t make enough time for her and won’t accept the fact that I have a family of my own to take care of and support.” “My husband barks orders at me all day long.” 

In their moment of tirade, should we cut our elders some slack because they are ill and perhaps in pain? Should we “turn the other cheek” and act as though what is being said to us does not hurt our feelings?  I say absolutely not.  There is no excuse for bad behavior on the part of the elderly people we care for.  NO ONE in the caregiving role deserves to be treated unkindly at any time, for any reason. 

In my book, The Complete Eldercare Planner (Random House, 2009, Updated and Revised), I describe in detail how eldercare can leave deep emotional scars when care receivers lash out at people who are caring for them and when the experience of family caregiving is consistently unrewarding and negative. Sons, daughters, spouses, partners, and friends know all too well about the volatile environment of eldercare and how quickly emotions can get out of hand. 

If you are a family caregiver and your elder is verbally abusive, I offer action steps as a way to to help end the vicious cycle of being on the receiving end of mean and nasty comments.  Integrating self-respecting strategies in the family caregiving process starts right now.  

Get angry. 

Self-respecting family caregivers get angry. They admit to themselves that they are angry. And they acknowledge the right to be angry. Self-respecting caregivers express their anger in the moment and do so in a way that teaches others how to treat them. Suffering in silence implies consent for others to treat us badly. 

Practice the following statements in front of the mirror. The more you say them, the more you’ll believe that what you are saying is true. Next time you are angry with your elder say these words to them:

What you just did (said) makes me angry. I do not deserve that.”

“It makes me angry when you…  Please stop it now.”

“My bedroom is private, and it makes me angry when you walk in without knocking.” “We’re all adults here, and your criticism is not appropriate.” 

Don’t take it personally. 

Self-respecting caregivers allow care receivers to be angry and they don’t take what is being said personally (this takes practice).  When our elders are lashing out at us, more often than not underlying issues are at work: elders may be in pain (physically and emotionally); elders may be frustrated (their bodies are failing them); elders may be depressed (losses of all kinds surround them); and elders are acting out (long-time family conflicts remain unresolved). 

The next time your elders start complaining; look them straight in the eye. Allow them a few moments for them to express their anger. Don’t defend; don’t interrupt; let them vent. When they are finished, you can help to defuse their highly charged emotions by saying something like, “I’m sorry this is making you so angry.” 

If they say they are angry about something you said or did, you can defuse that situation too by asking for forgiveness. I know this suggestion sounds strange; but keep in mind their anger is not really about you.  Asking for forgiveness is not an admission of guilt; it can be an effective way to calm the waters in the moment. “I’m really sorry I disappointed you.” “I know you’re upset (angry), and I’m sorry.” 

Set boundaries. 

Self-respecting caregivers set boundaries. Verbally abusive people pick on certain people because they are easy targets. Don’t make yourself available. There is no disgrace in walking out of a situation that is intolerable or beyond your power to handle; in fact, it is the smart thing to do when you recognize your own limitations. Simply say, “I’m leaving now,” and walk out of the room. Nothing more needs to be said. 

Ultimately, we cannot change the basic personalities of people who are mean and nasty. We can only make our best attempts to manage ourselves in the moment. Never ever forget that family caregivers are special and you deserve to be treated as such. 

I hope that you have found some of these tips to be helpful. I wish you well.

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9 Responses to Family Caregivers: Is your Self-Respect Intact?

  1. Antonella says:

    Caregiving is a feminist issue. The ppeloe called on first to be caregivers are daughters, daughters-in-law & granddaughters (the last one is unbelievable to me!). We’re geared for caregiving as women, through nature & nurture, but more often than not we forget to look after ourselves while we’re in the midst of our roles. It’s a tough one, the struggle with guilt was the biggest for me & the women I work with. But we won’t be good for anything if we burnout.BestEllen BessoMidLife Coach & Author of Surviving Eldercare : Where Their Needs End & Yours Begin

    • Joy Loverde says:

      Thank you, Antonella – for your comment. Women must hold their ground and be respected in this role.

      • Gypsy says:

        This is so true. My brother, my only other sibling says he can’t look after mom because he has to work. So if I don’t do it, then his wife will have to. It matters not to him that I also work full time, and still care for my home and family in my “free time”. Why he thinks his wife who has her own aging mom should have to be the one to look after his mom is beyond me.

  2. Claudine says:

    Thank you for this timely article that affirms my stance on being respected and gives my caregiving role a voice. It’s not always easy being a caregiver to someone who by nature is critical and negative and if you were not related to them you probably would have absolutely nothing to do with them. Especially with ideals as filial piety nagging in the back of one’s mind. We all want what’s best for our aging parents, but we must keep ourselves intact spiritually, physically and mentally and not allowing ourselves to be verbally abused is part of that process. Thanks again, and I leave you with these words of wisdom:
    T.D. Jakes on forgiving family members that hurt you over and over again:
    “You cannot forgive what you do not understand. Once you understand you adjust your expectations…..When you expect someone to love on a gallon level and they are a pint person you will forever be frustrated…”

  3. Mark says:

    Thanks. This is incredibly helpful. I have been expressing my anger in a controlled way and at times leaving the room (to return later). I felt it was what I had to do to continue with the care. It works and I feel supported in what I came to naturally.

  4. Rani says:

    Thanks. This is helpful. I am a full time working woman taking care of my sick 80 year old mother. Yesterday, i took my mother to hospital which is at a one hour 15 min from my house. She had a fracture 10 months back and is using a walker. When we came back, it was dark. There is one step to reach my door. Except for my driver we did not have anyone to lift her chair. I am myself abovr 50 and have a back problem.we had no choice but to ask her to take that step. There started her abuses and continued even after we put her on wheel chair. I remained silent and walked away from the room as i could not take any longer. She then called my sister and abused me over the phone. How can one not feel that those abuses are targeted. I feel extremely low and feel like running away.

  5. Joe Bradley says:

    My wife of 37 years is verbally abusive to me (husband) mainly before we go to bed. She had a stroke in 4 different places in her brain, She is lucky to be alive. It takes me one to two hours to calm down before I go to sleep. Her demeanor to me is terrible mainly when we are alone. She thinks I don’t have a brain left to be able to keep the household going. I am almost to my wits end with this situation as it has been going on for 7 years.

  6. charli says:

    Wow, sounds familiar. I am 64 and have been a caregiver of my 86 yr old mother for nine yrs. She has emotionally and verbally abused me all this time. I don’t understand why when I have lived the last nine yrs for her, catered to her every whim, been there for her 24/7 that I get no credit. All my siblings are putting me down & catering to her because of money. I just want to disappear……………….I’m so miserable. I had two cancer surgeries last year and may be looking at another one. I’m sure the stress all of these years is finally taking it’s toll. Pretty down about everything!

  7. I needed this article five years ago when I was caring for first a Mom and then a Dad with terminal cancer. I was a moving target for their frustrations. You brilliantly explained the absolute necessity of setting boundaries.

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