Caregiving for an Argumentative Loved One


Being a family caregiver can be tough even on good days. When everything is going smoothly, you can still end the day tired and worried about what might come next. But that stress builds even more when your loved one is argumentative with you.

As a family caregiver, you are definitely not alone. According to AARP and the National Alliance for Caregiving, 34.2 million Americans provide unpaid care to an adult aged 50 or older, and about 15.7 million of these caregivers work with someone who has dementia[1]. Why do we mention this? Because dementia can sometimes lead to argumentative and other worrisome behavior[2]. But even if your loved one doesn’t have any sort of memory issues, sometimes other things come into play that can spark tension.

What does that tension look like[3]? It might show up aggressively, such as through yelling or verbal arguments, including being bossy or even condescending.  It might be passive aggressive, which can include doing “innocent” things designed to annoy you or testing you to see how you react. It might be passive, with a loved one who simply withdraws and won’t respond to you (even though you know they can). All of these can lead to you feeling frustrated, annoyed, or even quite angry yourself. Understanding the reasons behind your loved one’s difficult behavior can help you deal with it.

Why is Your Loved One Arguing with You?

On the surface, it might seem like your loved one is arguing for no reason. They might not seem to have any basis for their complaints. They might be nit-picking at everything they can or simply trying to get a rise out of you. Or maybe you get the silent treatment in between outbursts or snippy comments. No matter what form the argument takes, it’s clear that they aren’t happy about something, and it can be easy to think that “something” is you.

But that might not be the case. It’s often easier to deal with anger than it is to deal with fear and thus, the fear running through their head and heart can take the form of an outburst of anger. Facing the changes that come along with aging, especially if they are suffering from health issues, can make the fear even worse. They might also be feeling the pain of losing some of their independence. Most people don’t like to rely on others, so having no choice but to do so can be tough to accept.

There can be other reasons why your loved one wants to fight. Here are a few:

·         The effects of dementia. Short-term memory loss inflicted by dementia or Alzheimer’s can spark fear and frustration, especially as your loved one realizes they are struggling to recall things that matter, such as where they are or who they are with. That can make trust difficult too.

·         Injured pride. As a family caregiver, it can feel strange to take care of your parents or other loved ones who, in any other situation, would be the ones taking care of you! Your loved one can feel that same strangeness and even a loss of dignity for simply needing care.

·         Fear of being a burden. Most of us worry about being a burden when we become sick, elderly, or need long-term help. It isn’t uncommon to want to push those helpers away and make it clear you’ll handle things yourself. But if your loved one can’t do that, frustration and worry sets in.

·         Feeling a loss of control over their body. Imagine wanting your body to do something for you, but it won’t comply. Perhaps you simply want to walk to the kitchen to make a sandwich. But the moment you stand up, you feel weak. You find it difficult to move around enough to make that sandwich. Something like this can lead to serious frustration in anyone, and that feeling can be hard to contain. It can lead to outbursts, crying, and many other displays of emotion.

·         Difficulty adjusting to changes. If your loved one has always lived independently, perhaps using aging in place home modifications to stay safe and investing in medical alert technology to protect them in the event of an accident or emergency, suddenly having a family caregiver in their home more often – or even all the time – can make them feel uncomfortable.

·         Embarrassment. As we get older, sometimes it feels like our body betrays us. A loved one who has to deal with incontinence, for instance, might feel very upset that you have to see that. They might not want to wear diapers or pads that keep them clean, even though they know they need them. The loss of control over bodily functions can be messy and embarrassing, and that can lead to lashing out.

·         They may have suffered a loss. When someone loses their spouse, close friend, or other loved one, they can feel incredibly vulnerable, sad, and hopeless. Depression and anxiety are common among those who have suffered a loss[4]. All of these swirling emotions can lead to difficulty in accepting or appreciating your care.

Tips for Handling an Argument while Caregiving

Though every situation is different, there are usually some clear-cut ways to best handle an argument. Here are a few tips to try that might defuse the situation:

·         Do not engage. If you aren’t fighting back, is there really a fight? Though this might initially make your loved one even angrier and the situation more contentious, refusing to engage will eventually take the wind out of their sails. They will realize you aren’t taking their comments to heart (or at least you’re hiding it very well) and they will stop arguing. At least, that’s the hope.

·         Take a break. If things get too heated and you don’t think you can last another minute without speaking your mind, it’s time to take a break. Step out of the room but stay close enough that you are there if your loved one needs you. If you are dealing with a longer-term issue and not an occasional argument, consider hiring a professional caregiver to come in and take over for a while so you can decompress and get some time alone.

·         Alert them to the situation. Sometimes your loved one might be arguing and not even realize they’re doing it. They might be raising their voice or saying hurtful things because they are too wrapped up in the point they are trying to make. They might not even realize they’re angry until you call them out on it. In this case, the situation will likely calm down immediately when you simply say something along the lines of, “Do you realize you’re raising your voice? It bothers me to be yelled at. Let’s talk instead of argue, please.”

·         Discuss the situation later. Diving right into a discussion about why you just had an argument only invites another contentious discussion. Allow some time for both of you to cool down before discussing what happened. When things are calm, you can open up the discussion on fighting and how it makes you feel.

·         Look for the reasons. What makes them angry? What makes them sad or fearful? Listen to their answers and search for what’s behind it. For example, if your loved one says they are angry because they can’t go out with their friends like they used to, consider what that actually means. Are they upset about their loss of mobility? Perhaps they can’t drive themselves anymore. Have close friends or family passed away, and they are feeling the fragility of life? Address the underlying issues instead of focusing on the arguments and see if there are any solutions that can make things better.

·         Make sure they retain some control. Giving your loved one a feeling of control can go a long way toward calming them down. If a simple change in how you care for them – such as giving them the option to choose their own medical alert device or allowing them to handle their medication themselves – is a viable option, do it! Caregiving is not a one-size-fits-all proposition. What matters is finding solutions that work.

·         Speak in a loving tone. No matter how the argument goes, try to keep your tone even and calm. Speak kindly and measure your words carefully. A shouting match will make things worse, as will snide comments here and there. And though everyone likes to think they will be kind at all times, the truth is, we’re only human, and bound to make mistakes. And speaking of that…

Finally, remember to cut yourself some slack. As a family caregiver, saying that you’re doing a lot is an understatement. You’re under a great deal of pressure. You might have many worries that keep piling up, not only for your loved one, but for yourself and everyone else around you. It can be tough to juggle everything you must handle, so be kind to yourself. If you have a bad day and do engage in an argument with your loved one, forgive yourself and plan to do better tomorrow.

When Arguments Become Severe

Sometimes an argument will go well beyond what you expect. The things that are said can become shocking or a verbal argument might become physical. When this begins to happen, you might want to take a step back and evaluate the situation in a different way.

Is your loved one showing some strange behavioral changes? Sometimes those with dementia can begin to act in ways that they never would have before the disease took hold. If you already know your loved one has dementia, the escalation to physical altercations can be a sign that their condition is getting worse[5].

And in some cases, it might be a sign of an entirely new medical issue. For instance, the Journal of Stroke points out that some individuals who have a stroke can become aggressive and combative.

You should never tolerate physical violence. At the same time, it’s important to understand that when things get to that point, it’s entirely possible that your loved one doesn’t understand what they are doing – their mind isn’t working properly anymore, for whatever reason. So if things become verbally or physically aggressive, it’s time to reach out to a doctor, professional caregiver, and other members of your loved one’s medical team for help. Don’t try to handle a volatile situation on your own. Remember that your health and well-being matters too.

It’s a good idea to consider medical alert systems with fall detection for your loved one. It can give both of you peace of mind as you travel the caregiving journey together.

Alert1 wishes you and all those you love health and safety!