We were invited to a dinner party recently. When I asked Jeff*, our host, about the kids. He said, “I would tell you they’re all fine, but if you asked Judy*, you’d get a different answer. She’s been so mad at one of our sons-in-law that his photo has been face down on the hall table for two weeks. When I asked her if she was going to turn it face up for tonight’s party, she said, ‘You can turn it up if you want to. I’m not touching him!’”
The sensitive and thoughtful thing would have been for me to say, “Oh, I’m so sorry. I hope it all works out.” Instead, I slapped my thigh, laughed out loud and said, “What a brilliant idea! I love that! Next time I’m mad at one of our kids, their photos are going face down!”
The Montana Method of Anger Management
When I speak at conferences, I provide practical strategies for coping with the emotional stress of caregiving, including anger. I tell a lot of stories, and I especially love it when attendees share their stories with me.
I’ll never forget Debbie* from Butte, Montana and her stress-reduction program. Debbie had two brothers who lived in the same town. Even though she had a full time job and three teenaged children, she was the one who ended up doing all of the work to care for their 92-year-old mother. Although she used to get angry with “the boys,” it never seemed to bother them or motivate them to help.
So, after a few years, she decided that instead of “stewing in her own juices,” she needed to find a different way to deal with her anger. For her birthday, she asked her husband for a rifle. Now when she’s feeling super-stressed, she goes upstairs to her bedroom, opens the window, and shoots at the gophers in her yard with her Winchester .22 single shot rifle.
The Egg Lady from Iowa
One of my favorite stories came from a wiry, older woman who came up to me after I delivered a keynote presentation in Sioux City, Iowa and said, “My anger management program requires two dozen eggs a day.”
Naturally, I was intrigued, so I asked her to explain.
She said, “I live on an egg farm. Every morning when I go out to collect the eggs, I set aside two dozen for myself. Then, at 3:56 in the afternoon, I walk out to the tracks and wait for the train. If it’s a short one, I throw the eggs really, really fast. If it’s a long train, I take aim and try to hit the logos on each boxcar.”
The image of that feisty, little woman in her pink butterfly sweatshirt and polyester pants pelting a train with eggs every afternoon at 3:56, made me laugh so hard I could barely catch my breath.
Later, I thought about the train’s engineer. He must have thought she really hated trains! He must have wondered if it was the whistle. Maybe she was upset about the type of cargo they were carrying. Had the train caused her chickens to stop laying eggs? (Evidently not, since she still had plenty to throw each day.)
That engineer could have guessed a thousand reasons, and all of them would have been wrong, because her rage had absolutely nothing to do with the train. She was angry that her husband had Alzheimer’s and there wasn’t one single thing she could do to stop the disease. She hated what it was doing to him, and she hated how it was affecting her life. She was mad about a multitude of things for which there were no solutions, and the train was a safe target for her rage.
Managing Caregiver Anger
It helps to know that anger is a normal and predictable response to situations and events over which we have little or no control. And it’s important to remember that no matter how hard we try, we will never be able to control the progression of a disease o r the behavior of other people.
So the question is not whether you will get angry. Rather, the question is how you will choose to respond. There are several practical strategies that can help, including:
- Get enough sleep
- Cut down on junk food
- Reduce consumption of alcohol, caffeinated drinks and soda pop
- Get outside and exercise
- Set clear boundaries
- Vent your feelings in a support group or with a friend who won’t criticize or judge you
- Get respite care so you can take a break from your caregiving duties
Most importantly, understand that having negative feelings doesn’t make you a bad person. As a caregiver you will have days (and nights) that are more challenging than others. Sometimes you might feel like the egg lady––frustrated, upset, and in the need of a target for your anger.
The same holds true for your care receiver. There is nothing pleasant, simple or joyous about needing care, so there will likely be days when you are on the receiving end of his/her anger. When that happens, rather than feeling wounded or unappreciated, maybe you could just tell yourself, “Today I’m the train.”
Do You Need to Go to an Anger Room?
I came across a story in the Huffington Post about Donna Alexander, a woman in Dallas, Texas who opened a business called Anger Room. It’s a place where people who are feeling angry and frustrated can pay for sessions of five, 15, or 20 minutes during which they can smash dishes or destroy office furniture.
It’s not clear whether Alexander will ever turn a profit. However, it’s very clear that people will always have reasons to get mad. Throwing tea cups, demolishing a computer, or turning a photo facedown won’t solve your problem, but it might help provide a little temporary relief from your frustration.
As we enter the holiday season, if you find yourself feeling stressed and anxious, take the practical steps listed above. And if it makes you feel a little better, go ahead and cram the stuffing inside that turkey. Whip the cream by hand, and don’t worry about biting the heads off a few gingerbread men.
If you have some of your own creative ideas for relieving stress, please tell us about them in the comment section below.
For more information on coping with caregiver anger, visit Caregiver Support for Anger
Elaine K Sanchez is the author of the unflinchingly honest and surprisingly funny book, Letters from Madelyn, Chronicles of a Caregiver. She speaks about managing the emotional stress of caregiving and healthcare conferences across the U.S. To contact her about speaking at your next event, contact her directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.