By Judy Morton
The subject of anger management in caregiving is one I'd like to address today. During my visit with my in-laws this evening, I couldn't help but notice that my father-in-law's dementia has taken another downward turn. He's become increasingly passive, spending most of his time in his recliner, often getting facts wrong and speaking very little. I've learned to apply the "pick your battles" rule, refraining from correcting him on non-life-threatening matters as it's seldom worth the argument.
It seems it might be time to consider new medications, as he's showing signs of wanting to wander again. At 4:00 AM, my mother-in-law was startled awake by him wandering into her side of their shared suite, insisting he had a dentist appointment. She managed to guide him back to bed, but I believe it's time to consult his primary care physician on Monday to explore potential solutions. The last thing my mother-in-law needs is to be chasing him down the hall.
As she recounted this episode to me, I couldn't help but notice the absence of sympathy in her voice and demeanor. I've observed before that she can be quite impatient with him, and as his dementia progresses, her impatience seems to intensify.
This growing impatience and, to be honest, bitterness, particularly struck me tonight. It became clear that she is indeed bitter and profoundly angry about the dementia. This must be an unimaginably challenging situation for her.
Her life hasn't been without hardships. Losing her father in an accident when she was just six weeks old and growing up during the Great Depression presented immense difficulties. Her mother's necessity to take on various jobs, often as a practical nurse and midwife, meant that not only was she without a father figure, but her mother was also absent for extended periods during her formative years.
She married at a young age to a man who promised to support her for life if she helped him get through college on the GI Bill, a promise he upheld. He worked tirelessly, saved diligently, and provided her with a comfortable life they both lacked in their childhoods. They enjoyed a stable family, a lovely home, and financial security, with ample savings for retirement. (While we have many concerns, affording their care is not one of them.)
My father-in-law was a resolute man, making thoughtful decisions and acting on them meticulously. He cared for her throughout their 68 years of marriage—until now.
Now, he struggles to make decisions, understand various options, or engage in meaningful conversations. He lives in a largely silent world, except when a particular thought becomes stuck in his mind, leading to obsessive thinking. Alzheimer's disease has robbed him of these abilities and more, leaving her angry—bitterly so.
Her anger isn't just directed at the situation; it's aimed at the added burden of decision-making now solely on her shoulders. She resents having to monitor him, engage in conversations for two, and be the source of his dependence. She's the last surviving member of her family, with her daughter living far away, and she's outlived her one cherished friend.
She's also angered by the fact that her son and I, whom she initially saw as a "silly bimbo" without sense, are now her lifelines. While she acknowledges my value, she can't resist an occasional remark about my youthful follies.
She never imagined that Alzheimer's would take her husband from her in this way, stripping him of his mental faculties. Now, she prays to pass away before witnessing his continued decline. She's frustrated that she's still here, still bearing witness to his deterioration, and still managing it all.
It saddens us deeply to witness her struggle, but recognizing that we cannot change the situation is the first step in coping with it. There's little we can do to alter their circumstances, so we'll cope. We'll manage my father-in-law's mental decline and my mother-in-law's anger. We'll handle their medical concerns and financial affairs. We'll face whatever challenges come our way, because we've learned that, time and again, we are stronger than we realize.
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