I once got huffy with the supervisor at my stepfather's nursing home for the poor care I thought he was receiving. Another day I impulsively dashed off an irate letter about a home health agency because I'd found its nurses' aides unreliable. I've fumed at my brother for not pitching in enough, and more than once yelled at my mother for refusing help she needed badly.
My quick anger has reared up repeatedly during my last six years as a family caregiver, however much I've tried to conduct myself with calm resolve. I'm not proud of it. I have lost control when feeling most frustrated — those times when others made my hard job even more difficult through what seemed to be insensitivity, incompetence or uncooperativeness.
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But mouthing off in fury has never helped me much as a caregiver. To the contrary, those incidents alienated health care and social service professionals, incensed my brother and compounded my mother's suffering. I probably came off as self-righteous and belittling. Afterward, I always felt guilty.
Of course, none of us is an automaton. It is normal, expectable and understandable to become angry whenever we're neglected, dismissed or attacked. As I heard recently from a harried caregiver in a support group, venting and ranting at the right time and place to others who share our feelings can give us a rare sense of acknowledgement and validation that helps us cope.
But too much anger not only hurts others' feelings; it colors our perceptions so that not even the positive, endearing moments of caring for a loved one can touch us.
There are ways for caregivers to thoughtfully harness their anger rather than lose control of their emotions and have later regrets. In the chapter on "Anger or Resentment" in our new book, AARP Meditations for Caregivers, Julia L. Mayer and I offer several ideas.
Slow down and breathe
It's a cliché to count to 10 before responding to stressful situations. But giving pause often leads to better decisions.
Caregivers are best advised to stop and think through the potential consequences of their actions before lashing out. In those brief moments of reflection — with a few deep, cleansing breaths thrown in — better options than simply blowing up often become clear.
Lead with empathy
Putting ourselves in the shoes of those angering us may seem near-impossible when our dander is up. But it can help us better understand their motives and behaviors and take some of the sting away.