If you’re caring for someone who doesn’t appreciate your effort, who verbally abuses you, or who generally harms your emotional health, the ideal choice is to leave. At least, from the outsider’s perspective, it seems like that’s the case. However, it’s not always that easy.
So, if you can’t leave, aren’t ready to, or don’t want to, what can you do when someone’s vocally ungrateful for you and your care?
Leaving isn’t always a choice
Again, it may seem like an obvious choice to someone who has never been a caregiver–if someone’s ungrateful, and especially if they’re verbally abusive, to leave seems like the clear answer. But, if you are a caregiver, you’re probably a little more apt to understand what the frustrations of someone who requires the help of others.
The reason behind the behavior matters
Let’s first take a moment to consider what it feels like to require care. At the root of any caregiving relationship is a difficult reality on the part of the person being cared for. While verbal abuse is never “OK,” your loved one’s circumstances may at least grant them some understanding.
Although there are commonalities among all caregiving situations, every caregiving dynamic is different. Often, aggression stems from fear and insecurity, but sometimes there’s a more nuanced explanation.
Disease and a loss of control
Sometimes, the condition that causes someone to require care causes uncontrollable behavior–which still stings as if it were intentional.
This is a common experience for those providing care to loved ones with dementia, Huntington’s disease, and other associated neurological conditions.
Dementia is characterized by cognitive decline, and those with dementia often experience gradual personality changes and loss of memory. Not only is it painful to witness this happening to someone, but it also means that their caregiver may very well face remarks that cut deep.
Loved ones caring for those with dementia often accept and endure emotional or verbal abuse, knowing that their loved one can’t help their behavior. They aren’t themselves.
This knowledge does not stop the pain or the strain, and whether you stay or go, this situation is a unique one that deserves acknowledgment.
It should be noted that inhibition-altering disease is not the only cause of vocal hostility. Sometimes the person you care for is aware of what they’re doing.
You might care for a parent who is or was abusive. Alternatively, you might care for another family member or a spouse who is, was, or has become abusive, volatile, ungrateful, or unkind in a way that impacts you negatively.
Harm reduction: coping and caring for yourself
Abuse is unacceptable, and we encourage you to honor your boundaries in any way you can. That said, if you’re in a place where you’re not ready to leave the role, you’re not alone.
In this situation, plan for harm reduction. That means finding ways to care for yourself and lessen the impacts of unavoidable circumstances. Whether you stay or go, you need a plan–both for the person you’re caring for and for yourself. So, what do you do?
1. Safely set boundaries.
Depending on the state of the person that you’re providing care for, you may be able to set boundaries. Maybe you’re caring for a loved one who does not have a condition that impacts their cognition, and they are vocally ungrateful or mistreat you. In that case, have a conversation if you can.
Let them know that you love them, but that you can’t let this treatment continue. Verbally, give them parameters regarding what you will and won’t tolerate. If applicable, let the person know that you’ll have to find someone to take over full or part-time if this continues. This is not a threat, but a statement about the limits of your wellbeing.
If you are nervous about having this conversation because it will put you at risk of harm, involve another mutually-trusted person. In extreme cases, you may choose to involve a social worker or other similar party.
Alternatively, sometimes you need to set boundaries not with the person you’re caring for, but with other members of their support system.
In families, there could very well be two or more of you providing care. Maybe someone tends to tap out when they agreed to help, leaving you with a bigger portion of responsibilities. As a result, you feel the need to pick up the slack and just let it happen.
No! It’s time to say “no” to picking up extra work–and yes, it is work, even if it’s unpaid. It does not make you less empathetic to acknowledge this. You are a human being who needs time to sleep, care for yourself, and tend to other responsibilities.
2. Know where to find respite care.
Respite care in caregiving refers to temporary or emergency services. It can last for as little as a few hours of a day or as long as a few weeks. If it’s possible for you, it’s imperative that you know where to find respite care and how to get it so that you can take a break when you need to. This can also be a last resort, kept in your back pocket for emergencies.
Remember that if you’re financially able, you can use these services for your own mental health without guilt. Here is a respite care locator you can use: https://archrespite.org/respitelocator.
3. Remember that it’s not you.
One of the most important things to do if you are in a situation where you’re being mistreated as a caregiver is to remember that it is not you. When insults or other verbal hits take place, this is not your fault, nor is it a reflection of you. If you are caring for someone who is verbally ungrateful or cruel, prepare internally in advance. Especially if similar words, phrases, or tactics are used each time, you know what to expect, and it might be time to tune out emotionally consciously.
4. Take care of yourself outside of the caregiving environment.
Outside of the caregiving environment, prioritize self-care. Use emotional self-care in the form of social support, positive self-talk, and anything else you can do to give yourself a self-compassionate boost. Additionally, make sure that your basic needs (sleeping, eating, drinking fluids) are met. The busy role of a caregiver can leave little time for self-care, so when you can, it’s crucial to consciously create that time.
5. Make sure that you have support.
A support system is vital for all of us, including caregivers. Your support system may involve friends, family members, a significant other or significant others, a support group online or in person, or a support network like Supportiv, to name a few.
Understand when too much is too much
If the abuse escalates, you might decide that you will no longer be the primary caregiver. For your wellbeing, you might have no choice but to make that decision. Here’s what you can do if you can no longer continue providing care:
1. Prepare for the transition.
The transition period will be hard. You’re going to be handing responsibilities to someone else, and with that comes a need to prepare for both the emotional and tangible changes.
2. Work through the feelings.
A lot of feelings may come up when you leave or plan to leave your role. Sit with and work through these feelings, and if getting a professional involved is possible, consider it. If you were abused during your time as a caregiver, this may be particularly necessary.
3. Find others to provide care.
Though this isn’t always the case, you might be the one in charge of finding another way for the person you’ve been caring for to receive care. You may decide to get a social worker involved, and this is absolutely recommended if abuse is present.
Remember: no matter what choice you make, you are not “bad” for making that choice. This is a difficult situation to be in, and you deserve support and compassion. Don’t hesitate to reach out for support from others.
Author’s note: Abuse is serious, and it is not a term I use lightly. I want to acknowledge the range of ways a caregiver might face mistreatment. If you are undergoing abuse, it is imperative to reach out to someone who can help. If you are in immediate danger, go to your nearest emergency room or, if applicable, contact https://www.thehotline.org at 1.800.799.7233.
This article is also featured on MHAnational.org.