Caring Currents

A Caregiver Valentine: Could Criticism of Your Dementia Care Really be Love?

Last updated: Feb 09, 2010

heart of stone
Image by easyrab used under the creative commons attribution license.

Dear caregiver to someone with Alzheimer's or another dementia: I know February 14 is Valentine's Day. But I'm not going to suggest any Valentine's-themed crafts for your loved one with dementia. Nor am I going to issue reminders that someone with dementia might still appreciate a mushy hearts-and-flowers Valentine, a box of chocolates, or a bright bouquet.

Instead, I'm going to ask some questions that aren't so flowery (but full of heart): Has anyone given you a hard time about your caregiving lately? Have you been accused, say, of spending too much time taking care of one person to the exclusion of others? Of making yourself crazy? Of running yourself ragged? Of the 10 signs of caring too much?

Has anyone uttered that dreaded word burnout?

I had a fascinating conversation the other day about this touchy topic with senior medical editor Ken Robbins, a geriatric psychiatrist at the University of Wisconsin, who knows caregivers and their stresses well.

"It's really important to pay attention to feedback from others," he says. Too often, it seems, observations "“ from a partner, a child, a sibling, a best friend "“ that a situation is less than stellar or that the person giving care is struggling are heard the wrong way by caregivers.

The natural response: Defensiveness! Anger! Hearing fightin' words!

The better response: Consider those words to be a gift, Robbins says. "View such comments as a kindness, that someone is being kind enough to give feedback, even if it sounds critical." And then, he adds: "Accept what you hear at face value and ask yourself what the person must have seen in order to say that."

I know it goes against basic instinct to think of reproach as a gift "“ especially when you're working so hard (not to mention being deserving of those chocolates and roses yourself!). But Ken's right. Actually the intervention of others can be a kind of double gift:

  1. The person cares enough about you to want to help, and this is a first step.
  2. By heeding their words, and thinking hard about whether there's a kernel of truth there (and if so, what you might do about it) you're also giving yourself the important gift of *self care."

So listen. Act. Be extra sweet to yourself, especially this Valentine's Day. I hope you get (and give) some hugs and kisses, too.