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Staying Calm: Caregiving in the Face of Anger

Reading time | 5 mins

I grew up with a mum who had a temper. She was quick to anger and could simmer with it for days. I learned to keep the peace, keep my head down and “keep movin’,” as my dad would say.

This instilled two things in me that followed me into adulthood:

1)    I would stifle my anger and then explode when it built up too much.

2)    I ran for the hills whenever anyone else got angry because it triggered old, scary feelings.

These two traits were never good for me. But when my mum got diagnosed with dementia, and I stepped up to care for her, they were real problems. 

Anger and aggressive behaviour are possible side effects of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. They may have many causes, including physical discomfort, overstimulation (which triggers fear and anxiety), confusion, and cognitive decline. 

Even if the caregiver doesn’t carry baggage or trauma associated with anger, aggressive behaviour can be tough to deal with. If someone actually does harbour childhood trauma around rage it creates a geniune dilemma. 

I was already worried about caring for my mum. But, as she became more disoriented and more frightened, her anger intensified. I dreaded her behaviour and episodes of rage. 

It became clear that I had to insulate myself from being re-traumatised. If I was triggered, I needed a quick resolution. I reached out during therapy and to other caregivers. I started to research techniques that could help soften the blow. 

Through trial and error, I came up with a few strategies. These help me cope with my mum’s anger, and I’ve learned a few tricks to process my own anger healthily. 

These strategies take practice, persistence, and patience, true. But they can be remarkably effective in managing the nasty side of rage.

1. Don’t take it personally

The people we care for are most likely angry at something that has nothing to do with us. Fear, pain, frustration, physical ailments, and disorientation can all trigger anger. 

My first strategy was to keep myself firmly in the present. Though my mum’s anger made me feel like I was six years old again, I kept my sights on what was happening in front of me. I was safe and able to take care of myself. Most of the time my mum’s anger had nothing to do with me or anything I was doing. 

Although this is relatively easy to understand in your head, it is hard to feel in your heart. Chanting “I am safe, and I’m a good person” when my mum’s behaviour felt threatening helped centre me. Accepting the reality that she was angry at life, not me, made a big difference. 

2. Be empathetic 

I remember so clearly the day I was able to find a new level of empathy for my mum. 

I found her standing at the refrigerator door, pointing to the large appointment calendar I kept for easy reference. Things such as doctor’s appointments were boldly written on with magic markers. 

She turned to me and asked desperately what this was and what it meant. She had a look of such childlike fear and confusion on her face that my heart broke. Something so familiar and mundane was now wholly incomprehensible to her. 

This loss of control for someone like my mum was devastating. Empathy made me realise that my mum had probably felt anxious and afraid for much of her life. Her anger was a coping mechanism to control her world and help her feel safe. It wasn’t about me and probably never was. 

This realisation made her anger feel less dangerous. In the future, empathy would help me be more understanding when she raged. 

3. Don’t react

This takes guts, practice, and grit. Being rested, centred, and well-balanced gives us the edge we need to pull this off. Prioritising our wellbeing allows us to meet the challenge of the anger directed at us. 

If we remain in our best emotional shape, we can see that most of this aggressive behaviour is happening near us, not to us. This can help us to remain calm. Observing, instead of reacting, prevents us from diving into conflict. The anger is then diffused, not encouraged. We don’t have to join in on every fight we’re invited to!

4. Listen to the message behind the rage

Hear the message, not the actual words. Anger is usually the product of an underlying issue. Instead of getting defensive, try to hear the truth behind the agitation or attack. I know it can be difficult!

Is it pain, fear, frustration, guilt? People are hurting when they strikeout. Did something happen or change or feel different? Is our loved one in trouble or needing attention or wanting to tell us something? Seeing anger as a message or signal reduces its effect on us and can be very informative. 

5. Take a break

When all else fails, it may be time to turn around, walk away, and take a break. 

I call this “detaching with love”. Sometimes, it can be the best plan of action. When we regroup, reset, and calm down, we can see things more clearly. 

Detaching stops us from engaging in the anger dance with someone and gives us a chance to breathe. It breaks the cycle. If it’s not possible to physically leave the area, leave the conversation. A change of subject is always an excellent way to simmer things down. 

6. Be gentle

Whatever we do, we must find a way to be soft and gentle - both to those we love and ourselves. Flare-ups are always going to happen, and they happen to all of us. Each time, we work at getting through the storm faster and with less damage. 

We are all doing the best we can. With kindness, compassion, and balance, we might learn something about our loved ones and ourselves. We can improve our relationship and avoid more outbursts in the future. 

Ask yourself the following questions: 

“How important is this argument?” 

“Would I rather be ‘right’ or happy?” 

“When my loved one is no longer with me, do I want to remember the fight or the fact I handled their pain with kindness and love?” 

By allowing our loved ones to be heard and accepted, we can help them work through their feelings while managing our own. As I got better at managing my own anger and shrugging off my mum’s, she became angry less often. When she did get mad, I used the aggression as a clue to decipher her underlying issue. Her anger lost its strong effect on me. 

It still shook me up a bit, but I didn’t hold on to the discomfort as long as I used to, and I wasn’t as frightened of it or her. It became more of a mood that I could shift and lighten with patience and compassion. I learned to make us both feel safer, and that was a blessing. 

Know that you are not alone in your struggle with your loved ones’ anger. Try one or all of these strategies, and I promise it will get better. I wish you joy and serenity. 

NPS-IE-NP-00303 May 2021