“STICKS and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me.”
How often have we heard this chant? It’s a common childhood chant to tell ourselves never to take people’s taunts and insults to heart. This phrase was often used to persuade children to refrain from physical retaliation, to remain calm, and to just walk away if they can.
Physically, that phrase is absolutely true. Words cannot break your bones. But hurt? It certainly does! Words can hurt so bad that they can scar or cripple you emotionally. Think of break-ups in a relationship, or words uttered during moments when you’re most vulnerable. They can haunt you like an endless nightmare. Most people learn to get by. It’s human nature to heal and move on.
Sometimes, however, taunting words, mental abuse or torture can go on for years. There may be no visible scars, and if a person is good at masking his (or her) feelings, no one would be the wiser.
Such is the life for some caregivers, especially those whose loved ones suffer from dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, memory loss, or mental illness like bipolar, schizophrenia or any of the combinations. This may be compounded by physical disabilities that add to the stress.
Being a caregiver to someone who’s physically challenged is quite taxing as it is, especially when you bear witness to his deterioration and see how he becomes a mere shadow of his former self. It’s heart-breaking to see how hurt and broken he can be as he succumbs to his illness.
As the caregiver, you would try to comfort him and find ways to cheer him on. You might even go out of your way to make his life as happy as possible. Doing errands, cooking, cleaning, bathing, toileting, taking him to the doctors for check-ups and treatments, going out for meals or entertainment, or just being a companion during those quiet moments, can become an acceptable routine.
When you’re in a situation such as this, you may be tired to the bone at the end of each day. But somehow there’s that
fine line that separates you from that person’s issues. You might even be able to get a good night’s rest and return fresh the next day.
However, when you have to care for someone with mental issues, the situation is different. Those who’ve cared for such people would tell you that the ones who are closest to them would be the ones to receive the bulk of all accusations and verbal (and sometimes even physical) abuse.
The patient could have trust issues. He may accuse you, the caregiver, of stealing his precious possessions like jewellery, money or anything that’s meaningful to him. The patient may even accuse you of giving him poison when it’s actually his medication. So such patients refuse medication and become sicker.
He may tell visitors or call up friends and relatives to tell them that you’re starving him even though he’s just been served his meal. You can be sure that your character has been shot to bits by your loved one —it could be your parents, spouse, sibling, children or dear friend — who’s suffering from such delusional episodes.
You feel betrayed. It tears you apart when you’re being accused like this time and again every day for months and years. It doesn’t matter that those around you are aware that this is the illness that’s talking, that you’re not anything your loved one accuses you of. But it doesn’t completely take away doubts if the accusations are repeated over and over again, especially if your loved one is someone the family revered before the illness set in. How can you discredit them, especially if it’s your mother or father?
We’d like to believe that we have stellar, untarnished reputations. Unfortunately, sometimes we may have done something stupid in our youth that gets dragged into the present day when it should actually lay buried with the past. Instead, it gets dragged up to be used against you.
Mental manipulation and torture are so complicated. When you see your relatives or friends who are caring for someone with dementia, don’t be so quick to believe everything the patient tells you. Listen to what he or she has to say, by all means. They need to have their say and be heard too. If you didn’t hear it the first time from them, don’t worry. They’ll repeat it again and again at some point.
Bear in mind that you don’t have to take sides. If you need to take action, remember to take everything into consideration and be fair in your judgment. Help to restore harmony instead of trying to prosecute. Help the caregiver cope by offering assistance. Try to imagine yourself in that situation.
What would you do? What would you want for yourself?