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Feeling Angry as a Family Caregiver? You Are Not Alone

How to acknowledge and deal with challenging emotions

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Photo Collage: AARP;(Source: Sarah Rogers; Getty Images(2))

Being a caregiver means dealing with a kaleidoscope of emotions on any given day. Thankfully, we live in an age when it’s easier to speak openly about the gifts and hardships that come with this complicated and often challenging role. And yet, one of the topics I rarely encounter in conversations around caregiving is the issue of anger. That’s right, anger.

I imagine that for some, there is a certain element of shame connected to emotions or expressions of anger, especially when it comes to caring for a loved one. Just the term “caregiving” evokes images in my mind of ever-cheery, self-sacrificing angels who rarely complain, never tire and are happy to neglect their own needs in service to another. And yes, I’m being a little tongue-in-cheek here, because caregivers are human beings, first and foremost. And we come with a range of emotions.

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Understandably, caregivers field their fair share of anger and frustration from loved ones. There are many reasons for care recipients to be angry, whether from pain and discomfort, the randomness of disease or injury, and fear and frustration around the diminishment of daily acts of living, to name just a few.

But what about the caregiver’s own feelings while on the receiving end of so many emotions? They also experience fear and anger, and there are days when trying to clean that up for someone else feels like being a human paper towel roll.

Anger is a kind of protector, explains trauma-trained clinical psychotherapist Meghan Riordan Jarvis, author of End of the Hour: A Therapist’s Memoir. “It comes in and yells and makes a lot of noise in reaction to just how hard everything is, but also almost as a distraction. If I focus on how unfair it is that my loved one is sick, or that I never planned on becoming a nursemaid, it actually keeps me from having to sit too long in the helplessness of the situation.”

Anger manifests differently from grief

While working through my grief after my husband’s injury in 2006, I could feel myself move from gratitude that he was alive to a white-hot anger that this had happened to our family. As ridiculous as it seems to blame someone for being injured in a war zone while doing his job, there was also an irrational part of me that was angry that his injury had impacted all of us.

I remember in the wobbly early years of his recovery, I’d be suddenly overcome with anger, alone in the safety of my car, slamming the steering wheel or letting out a primal scream. Grief was different: Those crying jags would usually come out of nowhere, often when I was alone in nature. Anger was something that needed to come out, a rage and sense of injustice, for us, for him, for me.

But I wasn’t allowed to say that out loud. We caregivers don’t have “rage rooms,” where we can check in and throw a few plates, sledgehammer a wall or two, and feel better. I was supposed to be grateful. My husband had survived a bomb blast. So many others had been injured so much worse, and many hadn’t come home at all.

When your caregiving recipient is mad or angry, it is your job to regulate, not escalate, no matter how many expletives are hurled. But that also means you lose your ability to respond in the moment and off-load anger or frustration. And sometimes a little voice in my head was asking, What about me? When is it my turn to feel ripped off/angry/sad/mad? Luckily, those moments are rare now.

‘A complex role to balance’

Donna Thomson, a caregiver, author and educator, points out that as humans, our feelings of independence come with expectations of moving through the world, but they are also connected to dignity. “When age or illness reduces someone to depending on another, the caregiver has a complex role to balance and protect the dignity of the care recipient,” says Thomson. “Sometimes that includes doing things that prop up a fiction of independence.” All of it requires an incredible amount of energy and positivity.

“The job of caregivers is to both assuage the anger of a loved one but also manage her/his own feelings of despair and sometimes rage,” explains Thompson.

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Feeling the brunt of emotional trauma

The Temple family of West Dover, Vermont, is in the thick of a clinical trial for a cancer treatment that could be game-changing for Paul Temple*, a 52-year-old husband and father who was sideswiped by his diagnosis this past fall. Rightfully, Paul holds his own anger at the disease. He is still grappling with the injustice of the fact that after kicking it once in college, cancer waited a few decades to strike again. And a little warrior-like anger in the fight against cancer is a useful tool to rally mind, body and spirit.

But it’s Paul’s wife, Charlotte*, 51, who bears the brunt of the emotions at home while also carrying her own fears and worries. Charlotte is a sandwich generation caregiver; she has a 15-year-old son at home and oversees care for both parents and in-laws. Charlotte likens her role during this challenging time to being the family “dump truck.” “People keep filling up the dump truck and I’m doing what I need to do, but eventually my dump truck gets full, and the reality is I need to empty it,” she says.

Charlotte is the first to say that she isn’t walking around angry every single day, but she often gets to the level of feeling, I just can’t do this anymore. “Sometimes the stupidest thing will set me off, blowing up at the air conditioner or cursing like a sailor — and I’m not someone who curses,” she says.

She views helping their son process his father’s cancer as the first priority in her caregiving role. “When things might be tense or angry around the house, he tends to take it more personally, because kids process things differently than adults.” She notes that you need to put on your own oxygen mask, but some days knowing something and then doing it are two very different things.”

Maintaining positive mental and physical health

Charlotte says she has learned to put her own emotions aside to deal with her husband when he is hurting or angry. “A lot of the time I don’t even think he is aware that he’s being grumpy, which makes it harder,” she explains. “He has no control over what’s going on in his body, and he can hyperfocus on it at times, so he picks on the things I’m doing wrong, which creates anger in me.”

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She describes going through this cancer journey as “caregiving on steroids.” It’s not like caring for her parents and in-laws, where she can assist and then leave. “This is 24/7.... The only way to get a break is to physically leave, which is not always possible.”

Charlotte finds trying to keep a positive mental space harder than trying to stay physically healthy. “Pasting on a smile in a way that helps the [care recipient] stay positive can feel like double duty,” she says. “And what I didn’t realize at the outset was how exhausting that would be.”

She also recognizes that because she is a caregiver by nature, asking for help is hard. “Normalizing the need for help is a start,” says Thomson. “And especially in situations where anger is involved, humor can also be the caregiver’s best friend.” Thomson also suggests that “agreeing beforehand on a mutual strategy to manage anger can be helpful. For some caregiving families that could mean a time-out, or it could mean deep breathing. Apologizing afterward, if that’s possible … is a good way to move forward with a clear head and an open heart.”

Handling ‘twists and turns’

Jean Doliber, 69, of Silver Bay, New York, felt a range of emotions when her husband, Peter, 68, was diagnosed with colon cancer a few months ago. Two of Peter’s family members had died from the disease, so while he had been vigilant about checkups, cancer was always a fear due to family history. But after diagnosis, when testing showed he had zero genetic markings, the question of why rose to the top of her mind and rattled around a lot. While Jean recognizes that cancer doesn’t discriminate, this was still a shock.

“I’ve always been pretty even-keeled,” she says. “Having worked in the nonprofit cancer space, I thought I knew what it would feel like to get the diagnosis, but you don’t know until you are there. Cancer is not a linear path. There are so many twists and turns and ups and downs, and that was so frustrating at the beginning.”

Like me, Jean is no stranger to the alone-in-the-car primal scream. “But I know that’s not how I can function all the time,” she says. “When I’m on my 12th trip to the pharmacy or walking the dog, which used to be his job, I often remind myself that this is what Peter needs, and I just go with it.”

Jarvis says that these anger flare-ups often occur because there is something we truly cannot control or fix. “Our ability to make meaningful change is limited, and anger comes in to show you there is still something you can do — get really mad,” she notes.

Thomson suggests it’s a good idea, in moments of calm, to talk with a loved one about the reality that everyone in the family, including the caregiver, experiences moments of anger. “A family meeting may be helpful to get everyone to recognize that anger need not be the elephant in the room and each person has a role in helping the other manage it.”

*Names changed to protect privacy.

Combating Caregiver Anger

Here are some tried-and-true tips from family caregivers Jean Doliber and Charlotte Temple.

  • Find a buddy who will pick up the phone anytime day or night to listen, offer thoughts or let you get your mind off whatever is weighing on you.
  • Go outside once a day. Just stand on your doorstep if that’s the best you can do. Nature has restorative powers.
  • Make a list of mundane, everyday things you need or want to do. The act of crossing them off is cathartic. Besides, with a busy life, the things we used to be able to keep track of mentally can sometimes slip through the cracks. 
  • Allow yourself to “feel the feels.” Raw emotion during caregiving is real. Cry, scream, punch a pillow. Then breathe and move on. 

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