Top strategies to remain calm in the heat of the moment when you’re a caregiver

You are helping a family member with dementia.

You probably heard it 1,000 times,

and you’ve probably told yourself another million times:


And yet it is so incredibly hard in the heat of the moment when you’re angry or frustrated!

Like when you’re trying to help someone who hurts you or who is not cooperating…

I remember one of my clients, Sally, from years ago.

She lived with her husband, who had early onset dementia.

He forgot a lot of things. He put things in the wrong place.

Every day they wasted a lot of time searching for his wallet or his keys (or both).

She always helped him, and luckily most of the time they found what they were looking for.

One day Sally said, “Enough is enough.”

She figured that having a little basket in their hallway next to their front door would be very helpful.

This would be the place where he would leave his keys, wallet, and sunglasses. It would make life way easier.

A wonderful idea!

But there was one problem..

He didn’t put his things in the basket.


Not even when she reminded him.

He felt it was not necessary.

In fact, he felt she was exaggerating.

The more she tried to explain to him why she needed him to just do it, the more he resisted…
… and it escalated into a big fight.

Sally had been very patient, but she got so upset and frustrated with him.

She even considered a divorce.

Here is something I’ve noticed over the years:

Even though you really want to discover the secrets of how to stay calm, in the heat of the moment you might not care anymore.

In the heat of the moment, you might hear the little voice telling yourself to stop, but you might think, “Pff, I don’t care! I’m fed up, and why do I always need to be calm?”

This is exactly what Sally felt.

I totally get it.

If this  happens to you, please know it’s not your fault.

If you are looking for strategies to improve your relationship with your family member with dementia, click here

It’s not because you are a mean person or don’t care enough.

It happens because you really care.

You care so much that something happens…

Your emotional brain hacks you and takes over.

That’s why you are only able to react—without thinking.

This is a natural and normal process.

At some point we can all get into the fight-or-flight state.

Fortunately, there are powerful ways to overcome this!


but before we go to strategies, remember this:

In the heat of the moment, sabotaging thoughts may come up when you’re angry, they may sound like this:

“Don’t put up with this! Tell him/her the truth!”


“He is doing this to hurt me, how mean, let me show him how fed up I am!”

This is normal.

And right now, the most important first step is to think about WHY it is so important that you stay calm. 

Here’s a hint:

Almost always, nobody gains anything by fighting or reacting to triggers.

Your personal values play an important role, and staying calm helps you act according to your values and continue being the person you really want to be.

Often, when we’re not calm and when emotions take over, we react in the moment without control. This is when we may start to yell or do things we later regret.

The regret is a sign we’ve acted in a way that doesn’t align with the person we want to be.

Understanding your values and what matters to you and who you want to be, becomes your compass.

As a caregiver for a person with dementia there is another factor and it is hugely important.

In order to cope in a better way and in order to not take it so personally, understanding how the brain changes and how this affects behaviours, moods, and relationships, will help you make sense of everything! 

If you don’t understand the brain with dementia, you might not recognize the behaviours as the result of brain changes.

Far more often brain damage is subtle and hidden, and when you don’t know it’s there, it’s hard to recognize the common pitfalls and to know how to avoid the common mistakes.

Common pitfalls are:

  • thinking that the person is lying
  • assuming that the person fully understands the complexity of a situation
  • feeling like the person is fully able to comprehend your  situation or your point of view
Here, Sally’s husband’s problem wasn’t just his memory;
he was also experiencing problems in thinking and reasoning.

He didn’t see the bigger picture anymore and didn’t fully understand why it was so important to Sally to have this basket, as a result of the brain damage.

He forgot that it was there because of his memory problems. Basically he forgot he had a problem.

And when she confronted him, he felt so much shame, that he pretended he knew exactly what he was doing. He rather wanted to be seen as a stubborn man, than as a forgetful person (in his mind, ‘a dumb person’)

Sally didn’t know this and she thought at some point that he was just a mean and selfish man—because she didn’t recognize and understand the changes in his brain.

Once you  understand a changing brain, you know it’s not personal and it becomes easier to stay calm. In the end, that is what will help you and your person.

You can then start to tell yourself something like, “No matter what, if I feel triggered (because that will continue to happen, perhaps less often), it’s not personal and I am not going to react.

I’ll act calmly.

I’ll take a deep breath.

I will leave the situation, go for a walk, and come back.”

This can become your new default response.

4 helpful ways to stay calm when you’re angry:

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  • Recognize the your personal early signs when you start to lose patience
  • Be gentle with yourself and allow your feelings and thoughts to flow freely. Create space. Acknowledge your emotions, and don’t try to fight them. There is nothing wrong with your feelings.
  • Breathe! The breath is a simple but powerful tool for controlling your emotions. Long, deep breaths will calm your nervous system in seconds!
  • Act in the direction of your values. Leave if possible (if that helps) and come back later.

 10 more tips to support you in daily life:

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  • Be gentle with yourself
  • Nourish yourself and practice self-compassion! Remember that you are human and that helping another person always comes with both good and difficult moments. Perfection doesn’t exist. Reflect and look into extra support—any person helping a person with dementia needs this, and it is not a sign of failure. This is a learning experience. You fall and you climb back up. Look for what can help you. It may be calling a loved one or a friend (or the crisis line, support line etc.)
  • Pray or meditate
  • Take breaks regularly during the day, go for a walk, read inspirational quotes or books
  • Eat healthy food and getting enough sleep
  • Approach situations with humor
  • Learn more about dementia
  • Connect with a support group
  • Practice mindfulness, stay in the present moment



And… when things get ‘messed up’ in the heat of the moment….

forgive yourself…

and the other person…

and keep trying….

….explore what support you need or what you can do next time…

anger can be a sign of burn-out.. reach out for help.

Remember, this is a process…and it’s not a linear process…

… it comes with ups and downs..

… good days and bad days…

Are you looking for ways to improve your relationship with your family member with dementia? Click here

I wonder… what helps you to stay calm?

Please leave a comment below, I would love to hear from you!

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  • Silka says:

    Sally’s experience with anger mirrors my experience with my hubby. I’m most grateful for the reminder that, because of his brain damage, he felt so much shame for not remembering where to put the keys that he preferred to be seen as stubborn vs a forgetful man (a dumb person in his mind – the worst imaginable thing to him, a former math and physics instructor and software engineer). Remembering these words of wisdom will help me deal with our challenging moments when he tries to do his own insulin injections which can take up to 1 1/2 hours at a time. I’m usually okay until the 4th injection at night – that’s when I start to ‘lose’ it.
    My greatest help has come from reading the ‘Calm Caregiving’ synopsis which reminded me to ‘see’ the world through his eyes. It created much warmth between us and his injections were much smoother and took less time. It is a constant reminder to me to see him as he is now rather than as I wish him to be.
    Thank you, Nadine, for your helpful insights and words of comfort and understanding.

    • Nadine says:

      Dear Silka,
      Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts and experiences. It means so much to me that the article and guide have been helpful to you!
      It is true.. we need these reminders. As family members we can forget and feel very frustrated when caring for our family member… thank you and sending you warmth and light… Nadine

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