Dear Family Advisor

I know my dad's endless rude behavior and repetition is the Alzheimer's talking, but it drives me crazy anyway.

Last updated:

September 12, 2009

My dad has Alzheimer's, and as a result, he's belligerent, rude, and asks a million questions all day long. I'm embarrassed to admit this, but I've snapped at him so many times. And I swear, at times I think he knows he's irritating me. Is this possible?

I've tried all the techniques -- divert his attention, give him something to do with his hands, ignore the questions -- and it works for a few minutes, and then I get sucked in and start yelling at him. How do I not let him get to me?

How do you not let it get to you? Start by doing just what you're doing: admitting that it does. Caregiving can "get on your last nerve," as my mother used to say about me when I was a child. The frustrations come at you from all angles -- the insurance problems, the bills, and especially the patient! You probably feel as if you're being pecked to death by ducks.

Yes, your dad may be aware of what he's doing at times. My mom had Alzheimer's, and I was sure that sometimes she was knowingly using her old tricks to entertain herself and irritate the heck out of me! Look at it this way: If he's capable of annoying you on purpose (at least sometimes on purpose), that means he still has some of his faculties. As challenging as this is, it's harder to deal with what's up ahead -- when the games come to an end and he can no longer communicate. If your dad lives long enough, that's typically where Alzheimer's leads.

Here's a plan to cope with the frustrations of the present. You may already have tried some of these, but keep trying:

  • Set up regular weekly outings for yourself. Do you take a yoga class, meet a friend for lunch, or run errands alone? If not, no wonder he's getting to you! Even a few hours a week gives you something to look forward to.

  • Replay in your head the last tiff you had with your dad What started it? What did he say or do? How did you respond? Now, change it. Do one thing differently.

  • Walk out of the room. He can't get to you if you don't participate.

  • If he's getting ugly, put on your earphones. Play a song on your iPod or CD player. Get your chores done and don't listen to his insults or digs.

  • Spend ten to 15 minutes a day really talking and listening to him. Just like a child acts out for attention, so do older adults at times. Give him the honor of a real conversation, even if it doesn't make sense on his part.

  • Get your humor on! Alzheimer's is so tragic, so difficult, that at a certain point you just snap. Why not laugh at the absurdity of it all? I used my caustic humor as an inner monologue that ranged from hornet-mad to hilarious. I had to, to stay sane. In a way, laughter is standing up for yourself. It's the splash of water on the Wicked Witch of the West.

  • Instead of yelling at Dad, go yell in the car. Or yell in your closet, or have a mock fight with a friend who will let you role-play.

  • Make a list: What exactly makes you the most frustrated and angry? Does he make you feel incompetent? Does he say something about you the way he used to when you were a child? Once you figure out its origin, the anger might just dissipate.

  • Get a calendar and rate your self control each day with colored stars. Was it a gold star day -- no fights at all? Or was it a blue star day -- the two of you went at it a bit, but then you said you were sorry or you stepped out of the room? Each moment, each day offers a new beginning.

  • Get something else going in your life. Even though it can be a challenge to get dressed and get a sitter. Sign up for a local class and learn something new, for example. The more you can carve out a separate life for yourself, the less his words will sting. Some "separateness" won't make you less of a caregiver: In fact, it'll make you a better one because you'll feel fresher when you come back.

Over time, you may come to peace with your dad and even his disease. My mom was domineering and manipulative before Alzheimer's, but you know what? I loved her and came to enjoy her over-the-top personality. At the time, caring for her was unbelievably stressful, but I survived and, to my surprise, thrived. I truly believe that the people who challenge us the most are in our lives to teach us. My mom showed me what I'm capable of. She showed me what a family does to care for one another.

These were gifts hidden in my caregiving years! I hope it'll be the same for you.