This post identifies some possible causes for behavior and mental health changes in your caree, and offers suggestions on ways to cope that can actually help both of you.

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Juggling the day-to-day challenges and responsibilities of family caregiving can be hard enough. Then add the unexpected changes in behavior and mental health that can occur in a loved one due to age or illness, and it creates a whole new level of stress to deal with.

As an example, your dad, whose finances you’ve been handling for months, suddenly lashes out and accuses you of stealing his money; or your mom, who is usually chatty and out-going becomes quiet and almost secretive around you. Initially, you might feel angry or hurt by their actions, but that’s the time to take a deep breath, stay calm, and ask yourself first, “Is there a medical cause for this change, or is it something else?”

Even with all you do as a caregiver to address a loved one’s needs, it’s not uncommon to be on the receiving end of an older adult’s anger, suspicion or withdrawal. These behaviors can often signal an out-of-control urinary tract infection (UTI), unmanaged pain, the onset of a dementia-related illness, or possibly medication side effects and interactions. Yet, with proper diagnosis and treatment, these issues can often be eliminated or at least reduced enough to improve quality of life for everyone concerned.

With that said, there are also behaviors that arise from the aging process that can’t be resolved through medical intervention. If you think about it, the older a person gets, the more likely they are to lose mobility, independence, control, friends, memory, and even a sense of belonging in the world. Is it any wonder a person experiencing these losses would feel grief, hopelessness, fear, and frustration? And who better to take it out on than the person who sees them at their most vulnerable, day after day?

So, as exhausted family caregivers, how do we help our loved ones adjust, while at the same time finding a way to cope with these changes ourselves? Here are five suggestions that have worked for me. 

  1. It’s rare to find a caregiver who hasn’t carried the unrealistic burden of doing everything perfectly, while feeling responsible for all that happens to their loved one. So, please understand that many situations are far beyond your control, and not everything can be fixed, no matter what anyone thinks, including you.
  1. Everyone needs validation. Acknowledge what your loved one is going through with questions such as “Tell me what you’re feeling right now?” or “What are you most afraid of happening?” Then take some time to ask yourself those very same questions, and jot down your answers. Just getting thoughts and feelings out of our heads and onto paper can be a much-needed release.
  1. Familiarize yourself ahead of time with some basic physical causes of behavior and mental health changes in older adults. This can help you and medical personnel eliminate additional possibilities such as hearing loss, the leftover effects of anesthesia after surgery, or even low blood sugar.
  1. With all the To Do’s of caregiving, our family member can sometimes become more like a project to be managed. When possible, take time to just be with him/her or seek out their advice. Demonstrating that you value their presence and experience can go a long way in making them feel relevant, rather than a burden. This in turn, can minimize outbursts, at least temporarily.
  1. Finally, look for a support group either online or locally, where you feel safe enough to share that perfectly normal roller coaster of emotions we all experience at one time or another. Just knowing you’re not alone can make a big difference. The best part? You may even come to realize one of the toughest things for caregivers to accept – we can’t always be superheroes. Sometimes, we’re only human.

Judith Henry was formerly a caregiver and healthcare surrogate for both her parents. This experience led her to write “The Dutiful Daughter’s Guide to Caregiving,” a blend of financial planner, family therapist, and geriatric care manager. Judith is a speaker, workshop leader, and creator of “Finding Your Voice,” a writer’s group for caregivers in the Tampa Bay area. To learn more about Judith, visit www.judithdhenry.com.