Taking care of someone that is being terrible to the caretaker
June 19, 2022 5:17 PM   Subscribe

I am taking care of a family member who is recovering from surgery, and my family member is acting like a jerk. Help me cope.

This was minor outpatient surgery for which they received 5 days worth of opiates to recover at home. This is day two.

They are being very disagreeable and oppositional. Everything I say is wrong, and they express the opposite opinion/belief. They ask questions about what I say as if to catch me in a test where income out the other side having proved myself to be an idiot. (A variation on the "when did you stop beating your wife" conundrum where the question gives no path to a reasonable response.) They are being critical and negative. Their tone of voice is very condescending and sarcastic.

They say that they don't actually feel any of those things, but are in pain and don't have the energy to frame things as nicely as usual. I am getting really fed up. I feel like they are taking their discomfort out on me and creating unnecessary friction in our relationship. I don't think that's ok. Is that supposed to be ok??!! I understand a moment or two of grumpiness but you should take responsibility for it right? And then try to be civil and courteous again? Even if it's someone you're familiar with? Right? Or is that not a universal social expectation?

It is possible to cope with feeling bad without dumping all the stress into your interactions with the other person. I have been in a similar situation and managed to recover from it without biting everyone's heads off so I am expecting my family member to be able to do the same. But they aren't. And is causing a lot of disharmony. They say don't personalize it, and I say try to cope without pointing stuff at me because it pushes me away and makes me want to let you fend for yourself.

How can I approach this differently? I don't think I'm being reasonable but I don't know how to stop holding my family member to the standards of courtesy and civility that I hold myself to. Don't be an asshole to the people taking care of you when you're incapacitated. It's pretty simple. (No, my family member doesn't have a physiological reason to be jerky like history of stroke, dementia, etc.)

My compassion stops where their unbridled negativity starts (since it isn't coming with any sort of proactive apology for acting like that) and I'm not sure how to change that. Do we just put up with people treating us like shit because they don't feel well? I don't understand how to do that.
posted by crunchy potato to Human Relations (18 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Walk away (like out of the room.) Don’t answer the questions. Tell them “when you do that, you make me feel bad, and I’m not going to stick around to be treated that way.”

You shouldn’t have to do that. But you can walk away (out of the room, go for a drive) and should.
posted by warriorqueen at 5:24 PM on June 19, 2022 [9 favorites]

Some people are just terrible patients.

If your relationship with this person is such that you didn’t have to be taking this burden upon yourself, the answer to “do we just put up with people treating us like shit because they don't feel well?” is “no”, followed by not getting into this situation in the future. In the meantime, draw whatever you feel are appropriate boundaries and let them know that if they don’t respect those boundaries you won’t be able to continue helping them. Don’t argue, don’t haggle. Just “if you can’t do [x], I can’t continue to help you. Your choice.”
posted by a box and a stick and a string and a bear at 5:46 PM on June 19, 2022 [3 favorites]

I don't think this is really ok, but if you're satisfied that it's just them not feeling well, im thinking about if I were in this situation, I think I'd try to put on a happy face while im making sure they have what they need , then make myself scarce. It seems like having to conversate too much is stressing them out so maybe they'd just prefer to veg out in front of the tv. If they don't want me to do that either then I might say something like ok but if you want me to stick around then you have to be a little gentler with me, ok?
posted by bleep at 6:00 PM on June 19, 2022 [4 favorites]

Is this usual behavior or atypical? If it’s atypical, I would wonder if they are in a lot of pain, not sleeping, having some kind of medication reaction, having unexpected strong feelings about their own mortality, etc. Even minor surgery can be a lot both physically and mentally. I am sometimes not up to my own usual standards or courtesy and civility either, in a similar situation. That doesn’t mean you have to totally excuse it, but it might give some explanation. I would maybe try to minimize unnecessary interactions for a day or two?
posted by chocotaco at 6:26 PM on June 19, 2022 [9 favorites]

Unless one of the following is true,

• the surgery involved something that could possibly have affected them cognitively, so that you can reasonably suspect they are truly not being themselves (and by this I mean something like brain surgery, which it sounds like it wasn't)
• you must take care of them, because you need them now or in the future
• you owe them a very large debt for something that they did for you and this debt is equal to this current burden

then I don't think you need to put up with this. I would not have the patience for this kind of bullshit, that's for sure, and I know with 100% certainty that no one in my family (or even my spouse's family) would behave like this towards a family member trying to help. It is absolutely not acceptable, in my book.

If I were you, after the next asshole outbreak I would look them very firmly in the eyes, and tell them gently (or maybe not so gently) that that's enough, that they behaved unacceptably, you have put up with it for two days, that you will not put up with it anymore, and that either they stop immediately, or they're on their own.

And at the next outbreak, leave.

I know it's harsh (and I'm not known to be harsh), but it seems to me you've done the right thing, and they haven't, and, well, sometimes enough is enough.
posted by StrawberryPie at 6:29 PM on June 19, 2022 [12 favorites]

Best answer: Did this person receive any sort of anesthesia, even twilight sleep-type, for their surgery? That's a brain injury, basically, and combative behavior is really common as a side effect. So is a black fog sort of depression. They may not have as much control over this behavior as we would generally ask of people. You should see some improvement within 5 days and resolution within a few weeks.

Since you need to get through this, I think you should pick a mantra like "we'll discuss this in a couple of weeks" to make it clear they best be working on their plan for a clear apology and this better not be a permanent way they're going to behave. Presumably they're going to have check-ins with their doctor or surgeon's office, and you should tell them about this behavior as something they need to follow up on. You can also just tell them to stop when they start. Just "stop" and leave the room and return a couple minutes later. Avoid taking their bait because there's no point, but you don't actually have to be super nice to them.

If they didn't have anesthesia, you might actually track it even more closely in case they are having a reaction to medication.

This is all assuming this is unusual behavior and this person isn't normally this much of an asshole. Change in personality is a real medical concern after procedures, and you will probably get something of a brush off the first time you tell the doctor, as they're going to say the patient is stressed and probably not sleeping well and opiate-constipated and some people aren't very good patients, but keep reporting it at every opportunity if you don't feel like it's improving.
posted by Lyn Never at 6:30 PM on June 19, 2022 [31 favorites]

is this a situation where you're going to be able to just go home once the five days are up? you can show up for emergencies and absorb ill temper a lot easier when you aren't simultaneously struggling to preserve permanent respect and affection for the person; you can just pretend they're a stranger, pretend you're getting paid for this, have pleasant fantasies of killing them, whatever.

or if this is someone who lives with you normally -- especially if it is -- do they actually have an emergency need for a caretaker, or is it just that the two of you are stuck in the same house and since they're recovering, you have no other role to be in and nowhere else to go, now or later? the latter situation is a lot more unpleasant, but it also makes it easier to have sympathy for the injured party. the kind of outpatient surgery where they give you less than a week of pain pills (which is not to say that pain and disability don't last longer than that) is the kind of outpatient surgery that people without captive spouses or subservient children routinely recover from on their own, with no caretakers. if they fall, they fall; if they miscount their pain meds, they miscount them. mostly they live. and for me, the agony of having somebody there just for short visits, so I couldn't scream or fall back asleep until they left, was worse than any theoretical risk of being left alone. I would guess that a lot of people are unbearable to their caretakers because having a caretaker is so unbearable. not your fault but if you want to forgive them maybe this will help.

you shouldn't put your foot down about them being a dick right now, no matter what (although you definitely can turn and walk out of the room once you've brought them whatever they need, right in the middle of the rude thing they're saying.) but you can demand some kind of reckoning or planning once they're past the worst of it. at that point they may say they don't remember doing anything wrong and it may be true. but you can tell them that it was bad enough you will not be doing this again, that the next time they have any kind of planned medical procedure they will be responsible for hiring their own health aide. you can tell them whatever it is you are not willing to tolerate a second time. I don't think anybody can be held responsible for anything they say in the first 24-48 hours after surgery, but past that point you are probably entitled to hold a grudge and follow through on any threats.
posted by queenofbithynia at 6:51 PM on June 19, 2022 [4 favorites]

Surgery upsets your routine, which causes frustration. Frustration is often expressed as anger.
The patient may be worried about their outcome or recovery. Fear is often expressed as anger.
Maybe they're asking, why me? Or maybe they're not making progress like they'd hoped. Fear is often expressed as anger.
Maybe the pain is worse than you know. Pain is often expressed as anger.

Even "minor" surgery is upsetting and it takes time to feel "normal" again. It's only been two days. I'd probably try to limit my interactions with this person and provide the basics they need to recover, especially if this is not their typical behavior. Take care of yourself.
posted by XtineHutch at 6:52 PM on June 19, 2022 [3 favorites]

(also in your deliberations on what is fair, you should put a huge amount of weight on what they're like normally, especially what they're like normally when they are sick or in pain but not post-op and not impaired. when I came out of anaesthesia I remember being so angry I would have killed any number of people if I'd been physically capable, and if I really had done it I don't think I'd be sorry even now. it wasn't really about anything. but I still remember how angry I was and how right I felt, at least as well as I remember the pain. and so when I was arranging my second post-op ride home, I made sure to tell the person in advance I am sorry for anything I may say to you and I take absolutely no responsibility for it before letting them promise to come get me.

so if your patient is a big baby every time they get a sniffle and you have been putting up with this for decades, fuck em. but if they are usually reasonable & normal and this is their first time being the worst, it really might be the chemicals.)
posted by queenofbithynia at 7:03 PM on June 19, 2022 [7 favorites]

Best answer: It doesn’t matter if there are good or bad reasons, there is no reason you should have to put up with this.

In the name of preserving a future relationship I would go ahead and attribute the crankiness to the medication. I would also tell them exactly that, and when they were cranky with me I would say “I think the meds have got the best of you and I’m going to go away for a bit”. And then go away for a bit.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 7:21 PM on June 19, 2022 [10 favorites]

You have some options. Pick any or all that work.
You can walk out of their room/ apt/ house. Go for a walk, read news/ a book, play a game on your phone, go do some shopping, whatever. You're being rude; I hope you're okay to be around when I get back.

You can be a bit passive-aggressive. Turn up the tv, wear earbuds. They say something unpleasant, you say What and make them repeat it a few times, making it obvious they're being a petulant ass. Mock them Do you know how unpleasant you sound? Dang, those drugs are really something. or just Hahaha, do you have any idea what a cranky baby you sound like? I hope you don't remember this. Srsly, you wanna be this whiny? I'm gonna enjoy teasing you about this when the drugs wear off. There's a line between mean and well-deserved pushback; find it.

When they are awful, act as if they have experienced trauma, and smother them with genuine concern and a hug. I know you wouldn't be so irritable unless the surgery really upset you. You're fine, it's going to be okay. I love you. I saw my sister, a skilled caretaker and Hospice RN, do this to my Mom once and it worked astonishingly well. Absolutely blew my mind, because our Mom was being truly foul.

Distraction, Get the funniest, sappiest movies you can find. Re-watch any TV series, or one the patient hasn't seen. Play music, loud. Read a book out loud.

Do not accept any BS, make it clear you will not tolerate it. Then do your best to have fun, no matter how small, and drag the patient along with you.
posted by theora55 at 9:35 PM on June 19, 2022 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Is some of the pain coming from your uncertainty about whether this person has the right to their anger, and the right to express their anger towards you in this way?

You seem to feel strongly that their behaviour is unacceptable, and does not align with your own values. You would not behave in this way in their position.

But you seem uncertain enough about this, to ask a question here.

I suspect you would find it easier to deal with this person's behaviour, if you didn't also have a nagging sense that your own reaction to it isn't valid. Are you doubting whether you're allowed to be angry and demand a certain level of decency from this person?

That's tough, and it's going to make it difficult to choose how best to behave.

I would say that you should find an approach that balances kindness to this person, and respect for yourself, and then make an effort to stop second guessing yourself.
You are the one who is in the situation, you know this person, you have the best information on what is fair and compassionate. You know yourself and your own history and limitations.

There isn't one correct answer that someone else can give you. Trust yourself.

And caring for another adult in this way is really tough. It's normal and rational to feel this way. Look after yourself, too.
posted by Zumbador at 10:15 PM on June 19, 2022 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Do we just put up with people treating us like shit because they don't feel well?

Look, if this is genuinely uncharacteristic on their part, not another instance of a pattern of abusive behavior: you don't have to, but, sometimes...yes.

Mefi is very big on the theory of boundaries, but sometimes people in the real world need a measure of compassion, grace, mercy--at least if you're going to maintain relationships with them. Figuring out how to feel compassion for someone who's being a jerk is challenging, but it's a worthwhile exercise. It sounds like this is a short-term situation. You can grit your teeth for five or so days. Just don't even engage with the fight-picking. Go bland and cool.

You can discuss their behavior with them once they've recovered. If they're a decent human being, they will probably look back on it with great embarrassment.
posted by praemunire at 10:28 PM on June 19, 2022 [19 favorites]

Best answer: You didn't say whether this is typical behavior for this other person, as in, whether they're prone to an oppositional conversational style and/or lashing out.

Instead you focused on how you'd come out of surgery, in pain and medicated, and handle things better than this other person.

I don't think that's all that productive.

Instead, think about whether this person is normally this kind of way, and how to manage the situation.

If this is atypical, there could be a medical issue happening, such as a medication reaction or a brain injury.

If they're just sort of a crank, and the surgery has amped it up, no, you're under no obligation to be a punching bag.

When dealing with a disagreeable person, the key is to not take the bait. "Be that as it may, I am heating up the soup. Would you like some?"
posted by champers at 4:22 AM on June 20, 2022 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I had this happen once to me where my husband was the patient and I was the caregiver. I realized at some point that it might be the Norco he was on making him nasty. At a quiet moment, I told him my suspicions and said he could either stay on Norco or he could stay married to me. He switched medications.

It is okay to have a boundary with a sick person. Tell the patient that you are being pushed beyond your limit and that if he doesn't control himself better, you will cut back on your time with him. This might mean he is seen only twice daily at which time you prepare meals, assist him to the bathroom, and change sheets. During the in-between times, he will be alone and can figure it out on his own.

Also, call the doctor and tell them the meds are making the patient irritable and you won't be able to be around him unless the meds are changed.
posted by eleslie at 6:54 AM on June 20, 2022 [3 favorites]

This situation is exactly what the Grey Rock technique was invented for.
posted by MiraK at 8:47 AM on June 20, 2022 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Do we just put up with people treating us like shit because they don't feel well? I don't understand how to do that.

Going against the grain here to say I totally do/would put up with it, yes :)

I feel like if someone is sick or in pain and I am aiming to help them, then my goal is to lift burden from them. And if one of the ways I can do that is by exempting them from the normal social requirement to be pleasant, then that is something I am totally happy to do, because it costs me nothing.

(I feel like not to do that is kind of odd, honestly. Like why would I .. cut them zero slack and insist that they be polite and friendly? That feels like how I would treat a stranger, not someone I care about.)

I think that for some people being polite & friendly is generally easy, and for other people—some introverts, people who are neurodivergent, people who are depressed, people who were raised by wolves—it is work. Normally we expect everyone to do that work even if it's not easy for them, but I think it totally makes sense to lift that obligation when a person is sick or in pain.

I say this as someone who has two friends who are in near-constant physical pain, both of whom are mildly grumpy all the time. I am fine with their grumpiness because they are amazing in other ways, and because I know they're doing the best they can.
posted by Susan PG at 10:45 AM on June 20, 2022 [7 favorites]

Response by poster: Thank you all for the feedback. Patient is getting on better now. It may have been the Norco.

Re: being gracious to someone that finds pleasantness effortful, in an ideal world I could do that. Practically I struggle to get beyond my sense of injustice. It isn't right and just to take things out on someone that you then expect to care for you. I would like my sense of compassion to override my sense of justice. Caring for another adult is difficult, draining work that requires a lot of emotional labor even when they are pleasant. I find it hard to choose the high road when someone is dumping on me unless it's clearly not in their control. I will have more opportunities to practice dealing with my mindset.
posted by crunchy potato at 3:40 PM on June 22, 2022 [2 favorites]

« Older Where can I buy this Chinese documentary: we were...   |   Sharing contacts with your spouse in 2022? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.