Caregiving: Could Your Body Language Be Making Your Loved One Anxious?

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Dear Candid Caregiver: My parents were always open about their long-term plans for retirement, saying that they’ve worked hard and retirement was going to be the payoff. Travel was huge on the horizon. Now, my dad has been diagnosed with mixed dementia, which, in his case, means Alzheimer’s and possibly Lewy body dementia, so their dreams are pretty much canceled. Mom is, for the most part, a good caregiver, but she’s resentful about what happened, and why wouldn’t she be? She has a right to these feelings except that her resentment shows through to Dad through her body language as well the tone of her voice, and from my observation, this increases Dad’s anxiety.

I don’t blame Mom because the whole thing is awful, but doing anything that increases Dad’s anxiety is a bad idea for him as well as those around him. The more Mom’s resentment about their failed dreams shows, the more anxious and difficult Dad gets. The harder Dad is to care for, the more Mom’s body language and tone of voice show how on edge she is. I’m not perfect, I know, so I’m trying not to judge, but I believe that I have more distance and, for that reason, more clarity, than my mom. How do I approach Mom without upsetting her more than she already is? – Sad but Tense

Dear Sad but Tense: I’m so sorry about what’s happened, not only to your dad but to your whole family. Generally, when I hear about ruined retirement plans, the letter comes from a spouse, so you provide an observant perspective that we can all learn from.

I’m certain that your mom doesn’t have any idea that her grief, her anger, and her stress over what happened is showing through in a way that it could negatively impact your dad, but you are entirely right.

Since you are big enough to admit that you sometimes let your body language speak in ways that you’d rather keep under wraps, you could start there. Tell your mom that you’ve read where caregivers often show stress through their body language and tone of voice. Admit that you’ve caught yourself displaying stressed or hurried behavior from time to time when you help your dad get dressed or do other daily tasks, and let her know that you want to change this.

Explain that these articles emphasize the fact that hurried or jerky motions on the part of the caregiver can stress people with cognitive disorders, and sometimes make them feel anxious. They can even feel that they are a disappointment, which is probably an issue already with someone like your dad. He doesn’t need these feelings reinforced.

Caregivers are only human. Understanding this will benefit both you and your mom.

My purpose here, of course, is that by highlighting your own shortcomings in this way, you won’t come across as blaming your mom. This, in turn, will keep things as smooth as possible, which could avoid issues between you and your mom that might increase her stress, which – you guessed it – could come across to your dad as more anger. Whew!

What if diplomacy doesn’t work?

That happens, of course. Some people are unable to consider their own behavior unless they are directly called on it. If your best attempt to use your own actions as an example doesn’t help your mom think about her own possible contribution to your dad’s anxiety, and try to improve in this area, then you’ll need to do more.

If this is the case, try to talk with your mom away from the house in a relaxed setting (if possible). You could take her out to coffee or lunch. The idea is to talk with her away from your dad so that he isn’t involved.

In this more private setting, tell her that you understand that she’s got to be incredibly stressed and you can’t even imagine how she does everything that she does. Tell her what a wonderful caregiver she is. Then mention the body language and tone of voice in the same way that you did earlier. Remind her again that you, too, have problems with this. That can limit her feelings of you being a know-it-all.

You can suggest steps that could help lower her own stress such as hiring help for a few hours a day as well as by joining a support group, either online or in person. Seeing a counselor, if she’s open, could also benefit both your mom and your dad since this would allow your mom to work through her completely understandable sadness and anger at their situation. You might mention that spousal caregivers have their unique pain, so taking steps to deal with this through support groups and/or counseling could help her regain her equilibrium.

Caregivers are only human. Neither you nor your mom will ever be perfect caregivers, so understanding this – and helping her understand this – will benefit both of you.

Touching base with other caregivers can help relieve unearned guilt in this area, too.

I want to stress that both of you could also benefit from practicing self-care, so you and your mom could, perhaps, share ways that you are doing this.

Best wishes as you help your mom take care of your dad. It’s a difficult family journey, but it does have its rewards.