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Learn to recognise your flashpoints when looking after a loved one with dementia

It’s not easy to keep your cool when you’re caring for someone with dementia. Find out how to manage feelings of anger and frustration and make the most of every day

If you’ve always considered yourself a kind, caring person it can come as quite a shock to find yourself becoming snappy, irritable and angry with a loved one who has dementia. But caring for someone with dementia can be incredibly difficult, both physically and emotionally, and even the calmest carer can lose it occasionally.

Here are a few scenarios that might seem familiar – and some ways to fix them.

Flashpoint 1: ‘Why are you yelling at me?’

Dealing with anger and aggression from the person you’re caring for can be so upsetting that it’s no wonder you can find yourself shouting back, or getting involved in a ridiculous argument about what day it is or whether or not they’ve had their lunch.

Fix it:
Take a step back and try to see aggressive behaviour for what it is; a common symptom of a common illness. Try giving yourself a mantra, such as, ‘this isn’t personal and many carers like me struggle to cope with it.’

Get out and about as a change of scenery could be just what you both need.

Flashpoint 2: ‘Stop asking me that!’

Repetitive behaviour can drive you potty. Sometimes you can answer the question ‘what am I doing today? ’ countless times without flinching, but at other times your patience quickly wears thin.

Fix it:
Phone a friend. Many carers feel they ‘should’ manage on their own but the reality is that a bit of sympathy and support can go a long way to make a bad day feel better. Visit a memory café  and talk to a community nurse and other carers to find more ways to cope.

You could also do whatever you can to keep the person informed. If they keep asking what day it is every five minutes, you set up a day clock so they can orientate themselves and don’t need to ask you.

Flashpoint 3: ‘Did you do that deliberately?’

You have planned a much-needed night out, but just as you’re about to leave the person you’re caring for has ‘an accident’ and now you’re going to be late. Sometimes you wonder if he does it on purpose because he doesn’t like you going out…

Fix it:
It’s highly unlikely that this behaviour is deliberate but it could be a sign of anxiety. Does your loved one worry when you go out? What could you do to help ease his anxiety? Or maybe it’s your anxiety he’s sensing? Do you find yourself fretting before going out? Could you manage your own stress better?

There are lots of strategies to help you deal with incontinence so don’t let this become an excuse for you to stop going out – taking regular ‘me-time’ isn’t selfish, it’s essential so is respite care.

Flashpoint 4: ‘I’m too tired to deal with this’

You rarely get a full night’s sleep anymore and by early evening you’re ready to collapse on the sofa. Unfortunately, this also happens to be the time of day when your loved one’s behaviour deteriorates. Coping with sundowning and exhaustion would test anyone’s patience so it’s no wonder you flip.

Fix it:
Learn a few relaxation techniques, put on some favourite, calming music or a feel-good movie and focus on helping you both to calm down – rather than on the household chores that need to be done. Living well with dementia means enjoying each moment – everything else can wait!

What if you still lose it?

Don’t worry, you aren’t alone, so don’t beat yourself up for being human. Instead:

1. Give up on guilt
Unless you’re a saint, losing your temper is unfortunate but inevitable so learn from it and move on.

2. Work out your triggers
Was it one of the flashpoints above – or something different? Knowing how to recognise your triggers could really help you avoid them in the future.

3. What are you really angry about?
Once they’ve calmed down, most carers admit that it isn’t their loved one they’re angry with…it’s the situation they find themselves in, and feelings of helplessness and fear which often occur during the dementia journey. You may find yourself feeling more angry at particular times of year; birthdays, wedding anniversaries or Christmas for example.

4. Practice acceptance
Learning to accept what you can’t change might feel really difficult, but it could make life seem much more bearable. If you need help with this, consider Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT). Ask your GP for a referral to a CBT therapist. You should be able to get at least six free sessions on the NHS and many people find it helpful.

Wise words

‘Acceptance is simply seeing something the way it is and saying; “That’s the way it is.”
You can’t afford the luxury of negative thought.’ Rogers, McWillaims 1990

Five more quick fixes

• Walk away – sounds obvious, perhaps but have you tried it?
• Punch a pillow – or scream in the car (on your own).
• Go for a run or brisk walk – physical activity can be a great way to release frustration and boost your mood.
• Write it down – keeping a journal is therapeutic and can be a great way to work out flashpoints and triggers.
• Go on line – you can get instant support from our community forums.