Dealing with elderly parents can be difficult, especially when they start to act irrationally. Many adult children find themselves in this situation, and it can be challenging to know what to do.
If you’re struggling with your parents’ irrational behavior, here are helpful ways to deal with them.
Aging can be incredibly stressful and an adjustment for older adults:
- Loss of independence.
- New and frightening health issues.
- The emotional distress of losing friends and spouses.
- Contemplation of their own increasingly approaching mortality.
Context is always important, and we need to be mindful as we seek to help the older adults in our lives make adjustments and cope with their own changing lives.
Here are some ideas to work with older adults becoming more irrational and displaying challenging behavior.
Try to see it from their perspective without judgment
Do we know what is driving the challenging behaviors? Try to see it from their perspective without judgment. What do you know about them as a person that might inform these behaviors as they cope with their situation?
Is it possible to have a conversation to understand better how they are feeling and why? Treat them as the adults they are, and be calm and reassuring.
Focus on the care
What we might prefer in situations should take a back seat to the older adult’s care. Creating goals about care is essential, and we should filter our own actions and responses accordingly.
When we can let go of every little thing and focus on the care, we release ourselves from the stress of each of those little things and can be better positioned for success in helping our older adults and connecting with them in a more positive way.
Set boundaries about how you are involved
The reality is that we cannot control everything, and we may need to set boundaries about how we are involved. Making choices about how and when we are involved allows us to stay focused.
Take a hard look at yourself, the situation, and what options and resources are available, and set clear boundaries about what you are able to manage and stick with it. Likewise, understand that it is a fantasy that we can control everything or force others to do certain things.
They ultimately have the right to make choices, even if we disagree. Understanding this can help us maintain control over our own emotions and reactions and ultimately do a better job managing the situation.
Accept the situation and let go of missed opportunities or what might have been if it had only been done “your way.”
Check if they have problems with their medications
Do we really know what is happening health-wise? Are medications being taken as prescribed, or should there be a review of current medications and possible interactions?
It should be no surprise that undiagnosed health issues or those being kept “secret” can affect how someone may act.
Certainly, issues with medications have a wide range of potential for affecting behaviors — new meds, not taking the medicines as they should, and unexpected interactions between meds all should be considered.
Respect, connect, and empathize
Make sure your older adults know that you are listening to them and that you see what they are experiencing. Let them know they are important and connected to you and your family.
Respect them, let them know their best interests are important to you, and you want them to be happy.
Seek out others with whom you can have an honest conversation
Although it often feels like it, you are not alone in this experience. Aging and the associated challenges and experiences for all involved are happening daily around us.
Seek out others with whom you can have an honest conversation and receive advice. You’ll feel less alone and will gain insight and ideas that you may be able to apply to your situation.
Finally, self-care is vital — this process is mentally, physically, and emotionally (not to mention often financially as well) draining on you.
Support groups, friends, sleep, exercise, and good nutrition — or whatever else may work for you — will keep your energy, health, and ability to manage better in place.
Kathryn J. Freda, MA, CMC, CDP
Eldercare Consultant | Geriatric Care Manager | Owner, Sage Solutions
Stay as calm as possible; convey calmness when communicating
This means that you, as an adult child, need to stay as calm as possible and convey that calmness when communicating with your parents. If they are acting “irrationally,” it is likely because they don’t agree with a decision you have made or one you want them to make — so you are at an impasse.
Getting all hot and bothered will only add fuel to the fire, so do your best to center yourself before speaking with them about the area(s) of disagreement.
A simple breathing technique of inhaling to the count of five, holding for the count of five, and exhaling to the count of five will help the energy you bring into the conversation.
Don’t be in a rush if you want to have a meaningful conversation. Plan to have plenty of time to be patient with the process.
Hire a professional care manager
When your parents visit their lawyer for advice, they generally accept it, right? Well, if you hire a care manager, you have someone who can help mediate these highly charged situations.
The care manager is objective and has no history or emotional baggage — no skin in the game; they just want a peaceful outcome.
It’s all about words
How something is framed, phrased, and postured matters. For example, a parent refusing in-home care might very well accept a “driver,” right? And, said driver, by the way, can also do meal preparation and a little light housekeeping. Who knew?
Make a quick call or a note with the MD
If your parents like and trust their primary care physician, they will often help support your cause, especially if it surrounds safety — like driving or medication compliance.
If you have permission to speak with the MD, perhaps a quick call or a note ahead of the next visit could act as a primer for the conversation.
Come from a good place
While this is not always possible because families are fraught with history and stories, to the extent you can approach the “irrationality” from a place of love, you stand a better chance at success.
If your parents know your only agenda is to enhance their well-being and that you are not disrespecting them, it will go a long way.
Remember, if you are attempting to take something away — like the car keys (hence the irrational behavior), then have a plan for what will replace it. Research other transportation options, hire a driver or an aide, or ask family to assist.
It’s not fair to tell someone you are taking away their independence without throwing them a lifeline.
Sarah Pappas, LLMSW
Geriatric Social Worker | Resident Service Coordinator, Jewish Senior Living of Michigan
Navigating the changes related to aging can be challenging, both for the older adult and family members. When preferences clash during decision-making, it can be easy to label your aging parent as “irrational.”
But don’t be so quick to do so! There are many reasons for “irrational behavior.” Your parent may be unable to rationalize due to cognitive changes, or their preferences may simply be different than yours.
Find out why their desires are different than yours
The most important tip for dealing with irrational behavior is to stay calm, though it’s easier said than done. Frustration, arguing, or yelling only escalate the situation and lead to greater conflict.
Related: How to Deal with Irrational People
Instead, seek to understand your parent’s perspective and find out why their desires are different than yours. From there, you can analyze what is important and find common ground on the issues that matter.
Do something fun with your parents
As roles change and children begin caregiving for their aging parents, it can be easy to focus solely on tasks that need to be done, such as setting up doctor’s appointments, preparing meals, arranging transportation, etc.
And while those are all needed, it can be frustrating for both parties when your entire relationship revolves around these tasks. Try to switch it up and do something fun with your parents — go for a walk, play a game, learn how to paint.
Related: 13 Fun Things to Do at Home
Seek help when needed
At times, the stress of caregiving can become too much to manage on your own. Know that you are not alone. There are many ways to get additional support as you care for aging parents.
If you are worried about your parent’s cognitive health, enlist a professional’s help to have a geriatric assessment done. A geriatric assessment can give insight and a treatment plan going forward.
If needed, consider obtaining guardianship to have the legal right to decide for your parents. Check out your local Area Agency on Aging for resources related to transportation, food assistance, caregiving, and more.
Certified Nurse’s Aide | Staff Elder and Dementia Care Specialist, Safer Senior Care
In many cases, we may feel that our parents are being “irrational,” and they may be because they’re acting stubbornly or making decisions that we don’t believe are in their best interest.
Perhaps they’re insisting on driving or living alone when it’s clearly no longer safe.
Understand how much your parents are going through
Emotions are very powerful, and losing independence is frightening for most of us. In fact, our brains protect us from the extent of overwhelming feelings with coping mechanisms like denial.
Understanding how much our parents are going through can go a long way. Imagine how they’re feeling and how you would feel if you were going through the same thing. Would you want your child to tell you what to do?
Make an effort to set important conversations up for success
Consider the right time, place, and people to be involved and who can best deliver the message in a way your parent will be most open to hearing.
This may be a:
- Family member
- Spiritual leader
- Other trusted professionals
Relay your concerns tactfully, yet directly and respectfully. Seek to listen to what they have to say rather than trying to convince them of your point of view.
In addition to the emotional considerations, increased irrationality can signal that your parent is not feeling well physically.
If they have some form of dementia, they may be unable to identify or communicate what’s wrong, so look to their behavior for clues. Often the pain is the culprit.
Look for non-verbal signs of pain
You may need to look for non-verbal signs of pain, like limping or grimacing, if they can’t recognize pain. Other common problems that can increase confusion, obstinance, and irritability include depression, infection, illness, or problems with blood sugar.
If you’re concerned that your parent may be disconnected from reality, it’s crucial to involve the doctor. A complete examination may reveal conditions that can be treated. If so, the confusion or disorientation can be corrected.
If not, and the diagnosis is Alzheimer’s or an incurable form of dementia, it’s still very advantageous to have the diagnosis as early as possible to best prepare for the road ahead.
Kera Redlack, BN, RN, MHS
Director of Health & Wellness, United Active Living
As a seasoned registered nurse, I have often needed to coach and support families who are struggling with loved ones who express their dementia in ways that feel stubborn or irrational. It might be a conversation about the refusal of care, hoarding, or vulgar speech.
In any case, the conversations are high stakes and draw many emotions. In my experience, there are several strategies that can be considered when supporting an aging parent who presents irrationally.
Know what to fight for and what to let go
Knowing what to fight for and what to let go of is one of the most critical steps in understanding and supporting a parent living with dementia. Ask yourself, “Whose problem is this: Mine? Or my parents?”
For example, it’s not uncommon for people with dementia to re-dress in clothing they’ve worn previously and refuse to change. This refusal seems irrational and often results in a confrontation between the child and the parent.
Families can instead choose to focus on the health and well-being of the parent. If they are safe, healthy, and otherwise positively engaged, then this may not be a battle worth bringing forward.
Ask questions to try and understand their point of view
Expressions of dementia are forms of communication. As family members and caregivers, we become responsible for trying to understand what the person needs to communicate.
Dementia impairs cognition, which includes judgment and problem-solving. Ask simple questions to try and understand their point of view, and seek first to understand the true need.
Don’t argue with them
The ability to act or think rationally is impaired for those living with dementia, so trying to argue your side of things will only escalate an already tense situation.
Instead, acknowledge how they are feeling. Respond in ways that confirm they are safe and secure. I worked with a family who struggled with their mom, accused the care team of stealing her belongings, and became very confrontational with them.
They knew this to be untrue; however, instead of arguing with their mom about it, I coached them on ways to respond that acknowledged her fears and concerns.
We also found creative solutions that made their mom feel safe, like adding a jingle alert to her door when it opened and providing her with a locked drawer to store valuables. Her “stubborn behavior” drastically declined once she felt heard and had a way to protect her items.
Don’t assume you know the best
Families are sometimes surprised by how little they know and understand about their adult parents. It is essential to be open-minded in learning about them.
It’s important not to assume you know what’s best for them. Encourage them to engage in new ways and try new things. Be patient with their new way of living and being.
Living with dementia can be challenging, but it continues to be a life that can be filled with meaningful engagement, joy, and happiness for every family member.
Stefan Allen Hickey
Therapist, Downtown Somatic Therapy
Be patient and control your own emotions
Our relationships and roles change as we reach adulthood. From being the care recipient to becoming the caregiver, this transition comes with many challenges, especially when our parents are complicated and stubborn to deal with.
On the other hand, as our parents age, they develop their own fears of the unknown. Be it the fear of losing their independence or the long-term effects of any health condition. They might start behaving irrationally.
While keeping patience and controlling our own emotions are the two best ways to deal with stubborn elderly parents, there are several other ways that can help:
Understand the root cause of the problem
To find a solution to any problem, we must first understand its cause. The same applies to this situation as well. To deal with stubborn and irrational elderly parents, we should understand where they’re coming from and what’s causing them such behavior.
Is it a physical ailment that’s the cause of their panic, or are they fearful of their growing age and its consequences?
Empathizing can go a long way here. Instead of judging them or just noticing their behavior, try to put yourself in their shoes. Understanding the root cause will get you optimal solutions, if not the best.
Don’t be harsh
Making your irrational parents do things you think are good for them is not easy. They have their own thoughts, and they perceive things differently at this time. It’s vital that you understand this — avoid power struggles.
Do not constantly nag or push them. Shouting, screaming, and giving ultimatums or arguments will only worsen the relationship. Instead of focusing on their opinions or decisions, focus on things that matter most, such as their health and safety.
Empower and make them feel valued
You can also empower and make them feel valued by making them a part of decision-making. Validate their emotions and opinion and show them that you still respect their opinions.
Don’t take things personally
Often when we see our parents behaving rudely or irrationally with us, we take it personally and eventually develop feelings like guilt and hurt.
You must understand that your parents are experiencing such emotional imbalance because of their fears and that it has nothing to do with you. To strengthen your bond with them, you will need to stop taking things on yourself and keep your emotions aside.
Just remember, no matter how much you try to prevent bad things from happening, they may take place anyway. So, instead of focusing on the bad stuff and self-blaming, channel your energy, stay calm and learn from the bad situations.
Related: How to Not Take Things Personally
Be emotional, not logical
It is almost impossible to make irrational parents understand things logically. Instead, prioritize their sentiments and feelings over logic. Avoid logical explanations and conversions.
Instead, try to strengthen the emotional connection by spending time with them, listening to them, and supporting them.
Seek external help when needed
It’s evident for you to feel emotionally drained and mentally exhausted amid such difficult situations. You would be facing challenges while dealing with your parents every other day.
So, don’t hesitate to seek external support, be it from therapists, friends, or family. Also, take care of your health by resting properly and eating on time. You can also indulge in physical exercise and meditation to vent out mentally and emotionally.
Former CEO, Dementia Therapy Company
One of our natural human tendencies is trying to over-explain or convince someone of our truth and reality. To be right.
Stop trying to prove your rightness to your parent
I’m going to cut to the chase here: Stop trying to prove your “rightness” to your parent; let your parent be right. Joyfully lean into letting them win and come out on top — regardless of what you see as irrational.
As brains age, perspective changes (perhaps getting much farther from reality), and irrational fears or concerns can arise. While we (as adult children) want to explain and educate our parents about reality, it can be highly agitating and not worth the outcome.
The goal when interacting with elderly parents: Exchange love and care and provide joy and safety
I’d offer that it is to exchange love and care and to provide joy and safety. If this is the case, then leaning into their reality — whatever that may be — is often a great option.
If your elderly father is saying that today is the chance for the Red Sox to win the first World Series in about 100 years, does it matter if that was really in 2004? Do you need to explain that it was 15 years ago and all the wins since?
I’d argue no. What matters is engaging lovingly with your parent. Ask him if he is excited! Ask him if he thinks they will win! Engage! Play! Get into storytime. What was the last game he went to? How was it?
Create a distraction when the moments are riskier and harder to navigate
Now, there are moments where the irrational is much riskier and harder to navigate, like insisting on doing something unsafe or taking medication inappropriately or something else health-related. These moments must be guided carefully, but I’d offer not totally different.
If your mother has lost sight to the point she shouldn’t drive but is insistent on driving, perhaps say, “Yes! Let’s drive somewhere in a bit. But before we do, can you help me with my nail polish?” (or insert something here where she can participate with confidence).
If the distraction works, great! If she insists on going, playfully ask if she can navigate or play music and if you can drive. If that doesn’t work, hug her. Tell her you love her so much and think it would be safest if she were your co-pilot.
This won’t always work, but I’m planting a seed here with you:
- Shift your goal from being right and “teaching a parent what’s up” to bringing joy and love between you.
- We are human. We crave connection, meaning, and freedom. If one of those is compromised for your loved one, explore how you can strengthen another.
- Keep the big picture in mind.
If early stages of dementia are showing through and some adverse behaviors are pretty stressful, explore a new app: Ella by TapRoot. It is by a behavioral psychologist who has worked in the long-term care space for over ten years and has tools and interventions to help with adverse behaviors.
Jocelyn Hamsher, LPC, CSAT
Licensed Professional Counselor, Courageous Living AZ
There are a few things to consider when navigating irrational behavior by elderly parents.
Have compassion and empathy for their position
First, aging can be difficult for parents as their roles and responsibilities shift, so have compassion and empathy for their position and also that their cognitive health may be declining, which limits their ability to reason.
Pick your battles
Second, pick your battles. There may be some instances of irrational behavior by elderly parents that can be ignored or go unaddressed. Figure out which areas of irrationality need to be confronted versus those to let slide.
Evaluate their capacity to change
Third, evaluate their capacity to change. If your parents are unable or unwilling to change, notice that. Evaluate what behaviors you are willing to tolerate and which behaviors you need to create boundaries for yourself.
If you know your elderly parent is irrational regarding family gatherings, limit the number of family gatherings they attend (or you attend, depending on the situation).
If they are irrational when talking about hot topics such as politics or religion, do not discuss those topics with them. When possible, be intentional about diverting opportunities for irrational behavior to occur.
Confront the irrational from a place of love and concern
If ignoring or sidestepping the irrational behavior is impossible or needs to be directly addressed, be gentle but assertive.
Be clear in what their behavior is and how their behavior impacts you or ways that they are being irrational. Come from a place of love and concern and stay away from name-calling or verbal attacks.
Keep in mind, even if you address the behavior, know that they may choose not to change (or are unable), and you need to be willing to accept that if you want to stay in a relationship with them.
Iris Waichler, MSW, LCSW
Licensed Clinical Social Worker | Writer, Choosing Therapy
Substitute collaboration for conflict
Many adult children go in and tell their parents what they have to do when they are concerned about their well-being or safety. This can make senior parents dig their heels in and respond with anger and protests.
How many of us want to be told what to do? Include them in decision-making.
Remind them you care about them and want to work with them to help them live as long and healthy a life as possible. Ask what you can do for them and with them to make this happen.
Bring in a third party they might be more willing to listen to
For example, if the issue is a health issue, bring in their doctor to talk with them about things you are concerned about. If the problem is finances, bring in a financial planner.
That will help eradicate the conflict between you having a perceived impartial source offering recommendations and support.
Be patient and persistent
Many issues of substance around caregiving will not be solved in one conversation. You seldom will get the response you want on the first try when dealing with irrational senior parents.
Gently broach a topic and know you have opened a door. In the future, when the time is right, you can return to the topic.
Pick the issues you want to be firm about
Ongoing power struggles only create more conflict. Pick the issues you want to be firm about. Let go of less consequential issues and let your parents make decisions on these occasions.
Hasmik Karapetyan, PMHNP, MSN, RN
Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner, Gloria Detox and Rehab Center
Identify the type of irrationality
In this case, the first thing to do is to identify the type of irrationality. There are many types of irrationality, and each one requires a different approach.
- If irrationality is related to anxiety, psychoanalysis is the best way to deal with it.
- If the person has a problem with anger, then they should be treated with medication or psychological therapy.
- When irrationality is related to psychosis, it is essential to take a different approach.
This is because most people with psychosis have an underlying emotional conflict that needs to be resolved. One way of doing this would be through psychoanalytic therapy.
Understand the whole concept of the behavior
Though different kinds of therapy can help you deal with this problem, you must also understand the whole concept of this behavior.
The importance of understanding everything is for you to become more aware of what they are going through so you won’t be much affected by what is happening; instead, you don’t expect too much from them.
Having an irrational parent is really hard to deal with, especially when you have no idea what to do with them. That is why we are encouraging people living with parents, grandparents, and other relatives that have a case like this to study well or get help from professionals.
This is for your own mental health that you are protected and not be mentally affected by what is happening.
Monica Miner, LMHC
Lead Therapist, Future Now Detox
Understand that they are not trying to hurt you or themselves
Dealing with irrational elderly parents can be tricky, but it doesn’t have to be. First and foremost, you need to understand that they are not trying to hurt you or themselves.
They are just scared of what may come in the future. But don’t let this scare you away from helping them because they need your help and support now more than ever.
Some reasons for irrational behaviors are:
- Loneliness and social isolation.
- Fear of death or dying.
- Anxiety about their own health or that of a loved one.
- Depression or other mental illnesses.
Find out the root cause of their irrational behavior
In order to help them, you need to find out the root cause of their irrational behavior. It may be one of these reasons or something else entirely. Once you know the problem, you can work on solving it with your parents.
You can study about it
You can also study about it, if it is not severe or not yet experiencing the worst episodes from the person. However, if it worsens, seek help from the professional so you will be told the proper handling of the situation and if there is medication needed and therapy.
Lawyer and Mediator | Author, “De-Escalate: How to Calm an Angry Person in 90 Seconds or Less“
One of the immutable facts of life is dealing with elderly parents. Roles reverse as adult children become caregivers to their parents.
This can be stressful because caregiving to a parent is not something we naturally expect, and watching a parent’s decline in mental and physical health reminds us of our mortality.
As people age, their bodies and mind change, often deteriorating. This can be a frightening experience as once-competent adults become infirm, slowly lose control of their lives, and face impending death.
Emotions run deep and, if they have been repressed, may lead to anger, anxiety, and upset.
Adult children must recognize that their parent is more emotional than in the past
This calls for a new set of emotional tools. Unfortunately, many adult children judge and criticize their parents as irrational. The elderly parent is judged, criticized, and emotionally invalidated.
To navigate this emotionality, adult children must make a radical mind shift: Elderly parents are never irrational. They simply have emotional moments.
As I teach my clients, you can never solve an emotional problem with logic and reasoning. Likewise, you cannot help your elderly parent with logic, persuasion, or rationality. Instead, you must learn to work with the emotionality present in the moment.
The most effective way is through the skill of affect labeling
Affect labeling is a deep type of reflective listening. When you affect the label, you are telling the elderly parent what they are feeling at the moment. Brain scanning studies show that affect labeling has the unique effect of calming strong emotions in literally seconds.
Affect labeling is a three-step process:
- Ignore the words.
- Listen to the parent’s emotions.
- Reflect back on the emotions with a simple “you” statement.
E.g., “You are frustrated, worried, and concerned. You are sad. You feel ignored and useless. You are bored.”
Continue with this no matter what the parent says until you hear “Yes” or “Exactly.” You can then engage with an open-ended question, “What needs to be done to fix things?”
In 45 years of professional practice, this is the one method that works every time to calm an emotional elderly parent and follow with a problem-solving conversation.
Executive Director, Alzheimer’s Caregivers Network
Remember that it’s not something your loved one controls
It might not be their fault. It’s important to remember that irrationality is a symptom of Alzheimer’s disease and not something your loved one controls.
The disease attacks brain areas that regulate emotion and instinct in addition to memory and other cognitive functions. Don’t take it personally, and don’t blame your loved one.
Pinpoint underlying emotions
Try to pinpoint the emotions that may be underlying the problematic behavior. While it may seem irrational for your mom to abruptly bolt from a family picnic, it might be that she was embarrassed or overwhelmed by too much stimulation.
Asking her how she’s feeling and looking more closely at the situational details may help piece together a better solution. Give her choices and ask for her input as you try to problem solve, like saying, “Would you like to sit at the end of the table away from all the noise the grandkids are making?”
Don’t try to correct them or argue the facts
Don’t take it personally. Your parent may become angry or combative towards you in other situations. Maybe even falsely accusing you of something. It’s crucial in those situations to take a breath, not take things personally, and don’t try to correct them or argue the facts.
Instead, validate their feelings in a comforting voice “I can hear that you are very frustrated.”
And try to redirect their attention, “When I get frustrated, sometimes it helps to get some fresh air. I was going to take a walk in the park. Would you like to come with me?”
Remove emotional triggers
Sometimes you can minimize irrational behavior/outbursts by proactively removing triggers that are likely to stress your parent out. Things like loud noises, clutter, crowds, and physical discomfort can all be addressed before triggering your parent.
Find solutions without infantilizing them
One battleground a lot of adult kids face is when their parent doesn’t recognize diminishing abilities such as driving or managing finances or household. You won’t likely have resounding success in your first attempt to address issues of independence.
You’re the “kid,” after all, and dad has been doing these things fine for decades! Keep the conversation relaxed and non-confrontational. Share things you have noticed. The near miss in the parking lot, the stack of unopened bills you found in the pantry.
Come from a place of concern for their well-being and offer options for them to consider, like a rideshare service so they can get around and socialize; or a once a month “pizza and bills party” with you to spend quality time together and knock those bills out.
Take care of your own emotions
As you navigate these difficult behaviors, be sure to recognize and process your own feelings as well. You are not a robot. These are hard situations. And you are likely dealing with, or not dealing with, living grief.
Talk to friends and other caregivers. Practice self-care. Focus on the positive – like the personality traits that remain (dad’s continued love of sports, mom’s passion for singing) and the love you still have for each other.
Founder, Parental Questions
Don’t take their behavior personally
It’s important to remember that an older person’s irrational behavior isn’t personal; it’s just a symptom of their dementia or Alzheimer’s. So, instead of getting mad or frustrated, try to remain calm and understanding. This will help the situation go more smoothly for both of you.
Try to reason with them
If your parents are behaving irrationally because of a mental condition, sometimes you can talk them out of it by reasoning with them calmly and rationally.
For example, if they’re angry about something that doesn’t make sense, try to explain why things are the way they are and see if that helps them calm down.
Offer reassurance and support
Even when you can’t talk your parents out of their irrational behavior, you can still offer them reassurance and support. Spending time with them, talking to them gently, and helping with day-to-day tasks can all help ease their emotional burden and make them feel more loved and supported.
Seek professional help
If your parent’s irrational behavior is proving to be too much for you to handle on your own, don’t hesitate to reach out to a professional for help. A geriatric psychiatrist or counselor can work with you and your parents to develop strategies for dealing with their behavior more constructively.
Accept that you can’t change them
Ultimately, you have to accept that there’s nothing you can do to change your parent’s behavior. They are who they are, and their dementia or Alzheimer’s is beyond your control.
You can control how you react to their behavior and how you choose to deal with it. Remember, the best way to deal with an irrational elderly parent is with patience, understanding, and love.
Founder, Ethical Frames LLC | Author, “Persuade, Don’t Preach: Restoring Civility across the Political Divide“
Focus on one thing at a time you want them to do
To deal with an irrational elderly parent, you need to focus on one thing at a time you want them to do and come up with a catchy way to get them to understand and remember it. I used this technique with my elderly aunt, who was affected by Superstorm Sandy while I was out of the area.
She and her caregiver (an immigrant) were without power for days and ran out of food. When I got through to her on the phone, I found out that she was about to leave for the grocery store to get food and didn’t know that the stores didn’t have power and were closed.
I scrambled to find a place for her to go and a way for her to get there. When I called her back to tell her about the plans, she dithered about whether to go.
I got around her resistance by coming up with a Biblical analogy, saying, “You know how it says that you never know when Jesus is coming, but to be ready. Well, I don’t know when Susan is coming, but you need to be ready.”
She repeated that phrase back to me. When my friend Susan finally arrived late that night, she and her caregiver were sitting dressed and ready.
Having an easy-to-remember-and-say phrase can be even more powerful when you use a value that is important to the person. In my aunt’s case, I know she read her Bible and would find it meaningful. But using any value that is important to them can make the phrase more convincing.
Vincent Jonathan Nicolas Borromeo
Senior Registered Nurse, Good to Know
My clinical experience spans over 12 years. During these years, I have taken care of patients from all walks of life, literally from womb to tomb. Interestingly, many of those clinical years were spent caring for geriatric patients.
It is understandable, though, that the current advances in medical technology mean that people are living longer; thus, patients from one end of the spectrum are enjoying extended life spans.
When I first met an irrational elderly patient, I was flustered, and it upset me well after the shift. I would go home to my partner and lament how someone could be so nasty without even a shred of humanity left in them. You could tell how bitter I was.
Over the years, I have attended multiple conferences trying to unravel the irrational elderly patient mystery and have also spent my time trying to understand them. Here’s what I learned:
Treat it like a tantrum
I have a 2-year-old son now. It makes it very interesting how irrational he is; even though I am the one with multiple post-graduate papers and even a Master’s degree under my name, he still doesn’t want to listen to my side at all.
Kidding aside (you can tell I’m a dad), his behavior is eerily similar to my unyielding elderly patients, which cemented my idea that their behavior stems from a tantrum cause: underlying unmet needs.
They either have some other issues that have not been addressed, and the stress of that unsatisfied issue makes them irritable and unreasonable.
For my son, it might be his lack of control over language, but for an elderly patient, it could be something like unbalanced electrolytes, hunger, dehydration, or even infection.
There is a reason why you take a urine dipstick in a patient with erratic behavior — you are trying to find the underlying reason for it.
Understand that it’s beyond your control
This reason is a sad one and can be complex to address. Elderly patients have complicated social histories or backgrounds. Some have dramatically separated from their families, while others may have no one left in their circle.
Needless to say, they become pretty sensitive and testy when you ask them if they’re in pain or ask for their name and birthdate for the hundredth time.
Check if they have an underlying physiological condition
I found it helpful for patients in these situations to simply sit with them and ask them if they were upset about their family or a specific situation. I would, of course, read their background history before doing so.
Having them confide and label their emotions helps them express them easier and realize that it has nothing to do with the paracetamol you’re about to give them.
To reiterate my personal experiences dealing with irrational elderly patients, their behavior only manifests as something else. Check if they have an underlying physiological condition contributing to their stress.
Additionally, check if the stressor comes from the social aspect or environment.
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