Caregiver Relationships | Role Reversal

Becoming Their Safe Place | The Challenges of Elderly Emotional Support

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Have you ever wondered why your aging parent or loved one acts so “normal” around other people but when they’re home with you they can be uncooperative, ill-tempered, and downright mean at times?

They have no problem letting you know your pitfalls.

  • You are evil with only nefarious purposes in taking care of them.
  • You are keeping them prisoner.
  • You are the source of their physical and emotional pain.

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At home you’re having to show them every detailed step involved in changing the channel on the TV or making a cup of coffee, but when you’re at the doctor’s office they are suddenly capable of driving again and are having no issues whatsoever. In fact, they don’t even know why you insisted they come today.

Talking with friends and other family, you are the reason they haven’t showered in weeks when that’s been a constant battle for you.

You never feed them but at home they won’t eat what you’ve prepared no matter what you try.

You are the reason no one ever calls or visits but when the time comes they refuse to welcome anyone.

It seems like everything you do is met with anger, criticism, or even rage.

You have become your loved one’s safe place. The person they don’t have to put on an act for. The part of their life that’s never changing and always there no matter what.

In a life that is rapidly falling apart and has recently been filled with nothing but terrifying change, you are the last truly stable part.

Related Post: How to Handle Your Elderly Parent’s Anger About Needing A Caregiver

Recognizing Caregiver Abuse

It may seem odd to think of an elderly person in need of care becoming abusive but it is, unfortunately, more common than we think.

Before we get into the idea of becoming your loved one’s safe emotional support, it’s very important that we, as caregivers, don’t overlook the signs of abuse.

While it may appear to be a gray area there are significant differences between someone who is abusive and someone who is just comfortable enough with you to let their bad side show.

To determine if your loved one’s behavior is abusive:

1. Seek counsel.

I depend on my husband, my parents, my sister, and my sister-in-law to not only hold me accountable to the quality of care I provide my MIL but also to hold me accountable to my own mental health. They know when I’ve taken more criticism and negativity than I can handle.

If you don’t have one already, seek the counsel of a trained therapist. They will not only help you recognize abusive situations but they will provide you with tools to help yourself when your loved one’s behavior gets out of hand.

2. Look for the meaning behind their words.

Most often when my MIL becomes angry or accusatory toward me it’s because she is yet again faced with evidence of her failing mind and body. Things like

  • wetting the bed,
  • not remembering how to get dressed,
  • being confused about what time of day it is,

cause her so much mental anguish that the only thing she knows to do to regain any kind of control over her mind is lash out.

While she is lashing out at the situation, I, as her caregiver, am the recipient.

In cases of caregiver abuse, there is no meaning but cruelty behind their words. If your loved one has a history of abuse or toxic behavior, this will likely not change when you become their caregiver.

3. Seek treatment

Consult a geriatric psychologist about getting your aging loved one into some kind of treatment program and counseling. This will help you determine the cause of your loved one’s anger and bitterness and also help move to a more stable frame of mind.

Following the death of her husband, my MIL was understandably depressed. Not only was she grieving but our family as a whole was undergoing significant changes as my husband and I became her full-time, live-in caregivers.

She was verbally abusive to all of us. Regularly we were “thrown out” of her home, informed of our obvious shortcomings, and she even accused us of being physically and mentally abusive to her when talking to friends and other family.

Thankfully, her physician was able to help us get several behavioral and psychological counselors in our home several times a week. It did not slow the progression of her disease. Because of her Dementia, she wasn’t able to complete assignments or any kind of “self help”.

What it did do was gave her an outlet for her anger. The therapists were trained in speaking and counseling someone in her mental state and were able to gently guide her toward releasing that anger. It helped her see and understand that we weren’t the enemy. The therapists also helped me understand her more and provided me with tools to better help her when she starts lashing out.


Never tolerate caregiver abuse regardless of the mental disabilities of your loved one. Tolerating or excusing an abusive situation by merely saying “it’s the disease” is doing yourself and your loved one a disservice.

If you believe you are in an abusive caregiving situation contact Adult Protective Services immediately. They will be able to do an investigation of your home and provide you with services and information that will help you and your loved one.

Related Post: How to Cope with Caregiving Resistance

Why Your Loved One Needs You to Be Their Safe Space

By becoming your loved one’s safe space you are providing valuable emotional support for them.

  • They are not constantly having to be on their “best behavior”. You are now the person who sees them at their best and at their worst.
  • They are depending on you to provide them with support, love, and help to navigate emotions that are too strong to be kept pent up inside or that they don’t even understand anymore.

One of the biggest conundrums for every mom is how much better their kids are around almost everyone else but them. Most experts agree that our kids feel most comfortable around their mother.

When they are not around their mom, there are unknowns, fears, and social expectations that keep them on their guard and therefore on their best behavior. When they get home their guard comes down because they know even though there are consequences to bad behavior their parent will not reject or abandon them.

In many ways caregiving is like parenting. You are responsible for

  • their safety,
  • their health,
  • their emotional well-being,
  • keeping a roof over their heads,
  • their cleanliness and hygiene,

and so many of the same things we do as parents. Most importantly, you are providing your loved one with the confidence that they will not be rejected or abandoned. You are giving them security from a very scary outside world full of unknowns, fears, and expectations.

Related Post: What Does Parenting Your Parent Really Mean?

Tips For Being the Emotional Support for Your Loved One

  1. Show that you care
    Give hugs, pats on the shoulder/hand, be proactive in their comfort, tell them you love them. These things show them that you care about them as a person and that they are not just another series of tasks on your to-do list.
  2. Avoid reacting
    When your loved one begins to lash out, take a step back. Leave the room if you have to, but recognize when you’ve had more than you can handle and allow yourself the time to focus on the cause rather than the anger.
  3. Avoid showing your own negative emotion
    My MIL will often say or do something just to get a reaction out of me. When she doesn’t get the horrified or hurt reaction she was looking for, she quickly changes her tactics and becomes much more pleasant.

    Similarly, if I’m experiencing any kind of negative emotion, my MIL will swiftly pick up on that and react in kind even if my emotion is not directed or related to her. While it can be exhausting, learning to quickly and positively check my own mood keeps it from bringing down the other members of my household.
  4. Get help
    Even if you don’t think you need help with the daily tasks, having someone just come stay with your loved one a few times a week while you take a short break will help you and your loved one tremendously.
  5. Lower your expectations
    Everyone has a bad day now and then. While you and I may be able to keep our bad moods relatively in check, our loved ones may not have the capacity or even the emotional energy to do so.

    Give them the courtesy of allowing them to be human and relax in your presence. Acknowledge that you understand they’re having a rough time. Remind them they are not alone and don’t take it personally.

While you should never tolerate abuse from anyone, not all negative behavior even when it is directed toward you is intended to be abusive. It may be that your loved one is just comfortable enough with you to not always be on their best behavior.

Above all, remember that just because you are taking care of others does not mean you no longer matter. Keep your own mental well-being in mind and get help for yourself when you need it. By seeking counsel and getting help on a regular basis, you will better equipped to become your loved one’s safe space.

Did you like this post? What have you done to become your loved one’s safe space? Let me know in the comments below.

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