Tending Miss Emily: Handling anger, or not

Published 9:32 pm Friday, September 26, 2014

Caregiving with anger and bitterness doesn’t work. I know. Mother and I tried that approach for three years. We were both miserable. Eventually, learning about Alzheimer’s disease, about the tangles in the brain, helped me become more patient with my mother, a victim of the disease. But make no mistake, sometimes my patience ran out.

In our caregivers group, many of the family caregivers are ashamed of yelling or getting angry at their loved ones who have some form of dementia. Patience runs thin after years of caregiving, and many times I experienced anger and frustration at Mother and her disease.

Sometimes I handled Mother’s behavior well. If she yelled at me when I tried to help her dress for the day, I learned to stop what I was doing, look at her, and softly say, “Mom, I don’t deserve this.” Then I would leave the room. Keeping an eye on her at all times, I peeked through the crack in the door and knew she was pouting. After about a minute, I walked into the room with a cheerful voice, “Hi, Mom, let me help you.” That brief minute gave her time to adopt a new attitude. She had forgotten what she was upset about, and we could finish the job.

One night, close to the 16th year of caregiving, I had reached my limit. We had rearranged her bedroom so that only one foot separated our twin beds. Mother couldn’t get up without alerting me.

For the 20th time that night, Mother had to visit the bathroom. I was exhausted and had to work the next day. I told Mom she had just been — she didn’t believe me, of course. So she started getting up, requiring my getting up too. Suddenly and, obviously without thinking, I picked up a glass and threw it at the light fixture overhead — CRASH. The bulb splintered into a hundred pieces on the floor right in her path. Mother was still capable of looking at me with that “Are you crazy?!” look. For the moment, I was, but I was also afraid that she would cut her feet on the glass. Panicked, I made her sit down, pulled her feet off the floor, grabbed a thick quilt and threw it over the glass, making it somewhat safe for Mother’s insistent trip.

When we returned, gingerly stepping on the quilt, I looked at the mess I had created, and I had to clean it up. I had to laugh at myself. Did I handle my anger well? No. Was I proud of myself? Definitely, no! But I learned that I had a limit. I learned that I am a human being who chose this situation because of my love for my mother. I was doing the best I could. What would I have said to someone else? “Clean up the mess and move on.” Mother had already forgotten the incident; therefore, I didn’t require forgiveness from her, only from myself.

Taking care of someone with dementia requires love, patience and understanding — understanding of the loved one’s needs and understanding the stresses placed on the caregiver.

Emily Albera is a former caregiver. For more information about Alzheimer’s disease and coping methods, attend the Alzheimer’s Walk and Education Fair today from 9 a.m. to noon, at the First Baptist Church in Washington. For more information, call Albera at 252-964-2192.