Coping Strategies for Caregivers

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Caring for a person with dementia is a true act of love and kindness. However, it can also become a source of anger and frustration, both for the patient and for the caregiver. Individuals who care for those with dementia are not always immune to the stresses of the responsibility.

While it may seem counterintuitive to be angry with someone about whom you care and who is ill, there are a variety of reasons you may feel agitated and on edge at times. You may feel as if things are out of your control; you may feel overwhelmed; or you may have unrealistic expectations not only of the patient, but also of yourself.

It’s natural to get angry. However, it is not a good idea to continually harbor those feelings. Instead, it is imperative to mindfully manage those adverse emotions and reactions, especially since individuals with dementia can remain highly sensitive to your moods.

First of all, it is important to remain aware of the signs of anger with the person you care for. These may include tense muscles, clenching of your fists and/or jaw; shortness of breath; speaking in a louder voice; or, worse yet, a desire to want to hit the other person, and that is what you want to completely avoid. If you lose your temper and become aggressive, this is a signal you have lost control and may need help and perhaps some time off. Further, if you never express your anger and just bottle it up, it could lead to caregiver depression, which can adversely affect your overall health and wellbeing.

Here are a few suggestions to help you cope with caregiver frustration and anger. While it’s not an all-inclusive list, it can help mitigate the tension you might feel. Plus, you may also find your own unique ways to positively deal with the negative emotions you are experiencing. So much of it depends upon you and upon the person under your care.

Educate yourself about the type of dementia the person for whom you are caring has, and learn techniques for effective communication with the dementia patient. Put the shoe on the other foot: imagine what it would be like if you were the patient and consider how you would want to be treated.

It’s okay to take a time out, even if it is just for a few minutes, so you can give yourself some time to calm down and refocus. Get in the habit of using relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing or just closing your eyes and visualizing yourself in a calm place. If the current activity in which you are engaged is causing stress, frustration and agitation on the part of the patient, switch gears and focus on another activity.

Know and accept the patient’s limitations. Do not push them beyond what they can do. The patient’s refusal to do things is not a result of laziness. The brain is failing, and the knowledge and abilities the person once had are fading. Imagine the fear and anxiety the person might have in that regard.

Focus on simplification of tasks and decisions. Even though the person for whom you are caring is struggling with this illness, she still may want to make certain decisions. For example, lay out any clothes needed, but let the person make a choice between a red shirt or a blue shirt. Instead of asking what he or she wants for dinner, offer choices, such as “Do you want tomato soup or a ham sandwich?”

Pull back on the throttle and slow down. A busy and noisy environment can often agitate a person with dementia, making it a challenge to think. Everyday tasks are more difficult and require additional thought and focus. Added noise and chaos only feeds that frustration.

Be sure to take care of yourself, too. This translates to getting sufficient sleep, eating well, exercising regularly and keeping up with friends and the things you enjoy doing.

Most important, understand the person with dementia is not intentionally trying to upset you. The person is sick and perhaps is incapable of doing the simplest of requests from you. In other words, the patient does not have a personal vendetta against you. Do not blame the individual for his condition.

Above all, no matter the person’s age or abilities, never fail to extend respect. Do not resort to giving orders. Instead, draw that person into the activity slowly, thoughtfully and in a manner that suits her current abilities. The main goal is to reduce the frustrations of the patient so that you, in turn, can reduce yours.

If you feel that you need additional help managing your anger and frustration, consider joining a caregiver support group. You may even opt for individual counseling if necessary. ■

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