Coping with criticism from the loved one you care for
Caregivers frequently turn their lives inside out in order to care for their loved ones in decline. I know, because I've done it. The number of elders who depended on my help increased throughout the years, to a total of seven, though the most I cared for at one time was five. I also had two children and worked part time writing as a freelancer.
Each care situation was different. I started with an aged neighbor, then moved on to a childless aunt and uncle, my in-laws and eventually my parents. All of them appreciated me. However they each had moments when, because of their own misery, they’d lash out at me in some way.
When I returned to full-time outside employment, I was still caring for three elders, though they were in a nursing home. I’d spoiled my elders by being with them every day no matter how much outside help they had. With full-time employment mixed in, I still visited almost every day and attended to every request. However, from my elders' perspective, my nearly exclusive attention from my pre-employment years was missed and noted.
One day my dad, who had dementia caused by a failed brain surgery, said to me, “You used to be a better office manager,” (one of my validating roles for him). I choked back tears as I said, “Dad, I’m doing the best I can.” He looked up at me, his eyes suddenly clear and lucid, and said “Yes, I know.” Then, he quickly returned to his world of dementia. I keep that precious moment tucked away in my heart to bring forth when I, myself, need validation that at the bottom of it all, my loved ones knew I did my best.
Moments of clarity help some of us move forward
That moment of clarity with Dad – fleeting as it was – meant the world to me. I truly was doing all I could do. If he hadn’t understood on some level the criticism would have been harder to bear.
Many caregivers aren’t so lucky. They care for people who may once have been mild of temperament, but Alzheimer’s disease or another dementia may have skewed their personality so severely that they no longer can understand, even for a moment, that their personal caregiver is sacrificing much of their life to care for them. Or, they care for someone who was always critical, even during their best years.
When there is no clarity how do we cope?
Actually, each of the elders whom I dearly loved and to whom I gave everything I could, had moments when they were angry with me. Dad’s criticism hurt the most, I think, because he was the mildest mannered of them all. He had always asked so little for himself. But dementia changed him. He was desperate to connect to whatever world he could. I had been his conduit to his imagined “normal” life. When I had to cut down on time spent with my remaining three elders because full-time employment limited my time, it was hardest of all to do less for Dad. I felt as ifI were letting him down.
Detaching with love is often the only way a caregiver can make it through
What I needed to do with Dad’s disappointment in me, as well as the disappointment my other elders occasionally voiced, was learn to detach myself from what they said. I had to remember that they were hurting and sad and that their brains were no longer functioning well. I had to remind myself that their disappointment really wasn't about me. It was about life.
When you are doing all you can, whether your care receiver scolds you or praises you isn’t the real concern. Of course, we’d rather be praised. But we need to understand what they are going through and detach our egos from their criticism. And if we have loved ones who do nothing but criticize us? We need to set boundaries. We need to say we won’t be treated with such disrespect, and we need to walk away from it. If we can’t safely leave them for a time to regroup, we should arrange backup.
Caregiving is tough. Needing to be cared for is also tough. Sometimes it takes a third party in the form of a hired caregiver, a CNA at the nursing home, or a good friend to come into the home to relieve the caregiver, in order to get through it all. Taking a break from the rigors of caring for the sick is a necessity for most caregivers. Having the help of more than one person is generally good for the care receiver. Remember to give yourself the gift of setting boundaries and getting outside help.