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Difficult Behaviors at Home

Tuesday March 9, 2021

Mario - what to do when you're the bad guy

Why is my mom ruder/meaner/more difficult for me than for anyone else?

When we have visitors or when we are out in public, my husband “pulls it all together” and appears “normal” to everyone else. But when we get home, the bottom falls out.

I am the bad guy. Everything gets taken out on me.

These discussions happen often when we meet with family caregivers. These situations cause so much frustration. It can almost feel like your loved one with dementia is acting like an angel for everyone else and then being hateful at home.

Throughout life, we learn coping techniques and social cues to keep up our social appearance. We are social creatures, who want to be loved, accepted, and connected. You learn at a young age to behave in public and use your inside voice. As you get older, you learn more complex skills like changing the subject when you are uncomfortable.

These coping techniques and social cues stay with us throughout life – often even far into dementia. And these deeply ingrained, learned social behaviors help explain why your loved one seems to be able to “pull it together” around others.

Do you remember when you were a child on the way to church arguing with your siblings in the backseat, and your mom turned around, swatting at you. She was about to explode with frustration. Yet… when the car stopped and the door opened, she put a smile on her face and was completely pleasant to the fellow church member in the parking lot.

If you have kids, think about when they were young. At school, your child may have been well-behaved and received great grades in conduct. Teachers said they were respectful and polite. But that same child came home and had an attitude and was rude and unhelpful. You probably wondered if you came home with the same child that went to school.

In both cases, social cues are being used. Be kind and behave in public.

How about when you are at the grocery store and someone comes up to you and starts talking to you like you know each other, but you have NO IDEA who they are. They greet you by name. What do you do? Do you say, “Wait, who are you? Do I know you?” Or do you say, “It’s so good to see you. How are you?” and finish the conversation never knowing who the person is.

You are using a coping technique, asking general questions as to not give away that you have no clue who the person is.

Let’s think about all this from the perspective of your loved one with dementia. In early and moderate states of memory impairment, individuals may be aware that they are forgetting things and that their behavior and abilities are changing. They do their best to hide this from others. (Remember: we are social creatures, who want to be loved, accepted, and connected.)

If they are asked, “What day is it?,” and they don’t remember, they may respond, “I wish it was Friday!” or “It feels like a dreaded Monday.” This is using the coping technique of humor. Similarly, when asked, “How old are you?,” they may say, “Old enough to not have to answer that question,” or “Age is only a number.” They are still using humor to cope with their lost abilities.

You tell your mom that her friends have called and invited her to dinner. To your surprise, she turns down the invite, saying she does not feel well and wants to stay home. She could be using the coping technique of avoidance. She may be worried she can’t keep up with the conversation or that she may say the wrong thing. She may be worried she won’t be able to find the restroom quickly. Her social world is changing quickly.

Your husband may not be able to have a normal conversation with you at home, but you go to church, and someone says, “How are you?” And your husband replies, “I am great. How are you and your family?” You think to yourself – Where in the world did that come from?! He was using social cues, automated responses that we all learn.

I often give this personal example: When I am at work, meeting with a family, or interacting with a participant, no one would ever know that I am having a bad day. I am smiling. I respond with kindness, patience, and compassion. But when I get home, my husband breathes wrong or my daughter says something I don’t like, and my mood flips. I am not patient or kind. I am short-tempered.

In most cases, we give the best version of ourselves to others. Then, when we get home, our family gets the worst. I know that my family will be there for me after every bad day. They won’t run away screaming (even though they may want to!). They see me at my worst and still love me.

In public, we all wear masks (figurative in this case, but please do wear your physical masks!). We make it look like everything is okay. Individuals with dementia do the same thing. They cover well outwardly, but then can just be hard to live with at home.

These words won’t solve your problems, but it is my true belief that the more you understand why certain behaviors happen, the better you can manage difficult situations. So what is the solution for you? How do you cope with being the bad guy? Just as your loved one is using coping techniques, you can do the same.

Your wife gets mad. You can apologize – even when you aren’t wrong! This technique is called disarming. When your loved one is angry, and you aren’t sure why, responding with empathy and compassion can be the way to win them over. And sometimes just understanding why something is happening can make a difference.

From one bad guy to another, if you need help figuring out how to handle a difficult situation with your loved one, give us a call at 901-854-1200. We are happy to help you navigate these difficult pathways.

Written by Sheri Wammack, LBSW