Family Caregivers: Where’s your self-respect?


by Joy Loverde

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.