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Better than a Magic Force-field: Dealing with a Difficult Family Member

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In a couple of hours I’ll be taking my aunt to a doctor appointment. This is something we do quite frequently given that she has Alzheimer’s Disease and I am her Power of Attorney for Health-care.

My aunt can be quite an intense person — very judgmental, self-centered and with a strong temper. I still remember the dents in her car which she herself put there by beating it with her briefcase when she got angry one day. That was many years ago, when she still had all her faculties.

A couple of years ago, before each visit I would call in every kind of psychic protection I could think of. I did my best to let her rage and lashing words bounce off of me, but maintaining that level of vigilance could be exhausting.

My interactions with her became so difficult for me that my doctor told me he was concerned I’d have a stroke. And yet, while I could hire help with some things, I couldn’t simply opt out of my relationship or duty as Power of Attorney. I needed to find a better way to handle it.

One day I received this guidance: “be more like a beach and less like a wall.” In my mind I could see the waves rolling onto the beach and then rolling back out again. I understood the message. If I don’t resist her negativity, it can pass just as easily as it came to me. If I argue against it or try to block it then that’s when I feel damaged.

I imagine the martial arts masters who avoid an oncoming attack just by turning to one side and letting the attack pass by them. When there is no place for the attack to land, when I don’t try to block it or attack back, then it simply falls flat.

Here are the secrets I’ve discovered to surviving our encounters:

  1. Limit my time with her. This includes giving myself permission to leave, even if I’ve only been there a few minutes. Granted, sometimes we have to go to an appointment and, as much as I might want to, I can’t leave her on the curb to get home on her own. A certain amount of time together may be required. That’s when the rest of this list becomes really helpful.
  2. Don’t take things personally. This is the one thing that, when I forget it, creates the most grief for me. If (ok, I’ll be honest, WHEN) she says something that really gets under my skin, I can usually trace it to something I’ve taken personally that wasn’t really about me. For example, at our last appointment the doctor asked her how often I come to visit. She replied, “3 or 4 times a year.” In fact I had just seen her two days earlier. I have the option of taking this personally and getting wound up about it, feeling defensive or insulted…or I can remind myself that her sense of time and the words she uses about time (months, days, years, hours) are very loose concepts at best. Truthfully it has nothing to do with me.
  3. Give it a “pass.” I think of many of my aunt’s comments as invitations. They are invitations for me to engage in an argument or an opportunity to allow my feelings to be hurt. Most of the time I’m able to let these invitations go by without responding to them. Sometimes in my mind I imagine stepping aside and watching her words fall on the ground beside me.
  4. Aftercare. It helps me to talk about our visits. Usually I can just tell the story once or twice and be done with it. If I feel compelled to keep re-telling it, I refer myself to #2 on this list. When I get home I like to shift my attention by going for a walk or watching a clip of kittens on Facebook. A good shower or smudging can help, washing away any residue from our interaction that I might have brought home with me.

My aunt is only in her sixties, so I expect I’ll have time to further refine my approach. In the meantime, I hope this is helpful to those of you who, like me, have family members whose welfare is your responsibility but who can take a toll on your own well-being.

If you have thoughts or comments, I’d love to hear from you. You can reach me through the Contact page.
With love,
Susan