An elderly woman sits outside

How to deal with irrational elderly parents

It’s never easy to care for elderly parents. Yet, when elderly parents are hurtful with their words or seemingly irrational with their actions, it can become even more challenging. As you care for an aging parent, it’s important to understand how to deal with this type of behavior without putting extra stress on your relationship. And you’re not alone: 77% of adult children struggle to get their parents to take their advice or get help. 

Let’s go over some tips to manage irrational behavior in elderly parents so that you can focus on improving his/her well-being – and yours too.  

The difficulty of aging

Aging can be a challenging adjustment for seniors. During this time, they’re facing new health problems, a loss of independence and the emotional distress of their own looming death. At this age, many seniors have lost friends or spouses and feel vulnerable about their future, too. 

It’s common for seniors to have fear about aging, pain with health conditions and frustration about losing their independence. They may have already had an undignified experience with aging, or some hidden confusion about what’s next. 

You should keep this context in mind as you care for your elderly parents. Many seemingly irrational behaviors arise from the fear and uncertainty of the aging process.

Underlying physical reasons for irrational behavior

At the same time, irrational behaviors in the elderly often have a physical component behind them. You should check with your parent’s physician to learn about their specific medical case.

For seniors with dementia, cognitive decline can lead to behavioral changes such as anger, anxiety and paranoia. Over time, these behaviors may get more extreme. Caregivers with dementia may need to prepare themselves for this behavior and focus on gaining their trust to manage it.

Irrational behavior may also occur with seniors with mental illnesses, which may get worse as they age because of a decline in neuron health. Conditions like depression and anxiety can lead to paranoid beliefs or outbursts that are not “like them.” 

Even seniors who haven’t been diagnosed with dementia or mental illness may find themselves vulnerable to irrational feelings. It’s important to keep these physical aspects top of mind when you’re dealing with these behaviors. You may need to consult your parents’ physician to get a better understanding of whether behavioral changes may be a result of underlying physical ones.

Setting ground rules with family members

As you’re caring for elderly parents, it’s important to understand the family dynamics and set any ground rules. For example, if you’ve always had a difficult relationship with a parent, it may be unrealistic to manage behaviors during aging. 

If there are other family members interacting with your parents, it’s also good to clue them in. In particular, your kids may need some caring explanation about what their grandparents might be feeling. This way, they won’t be as impacted by angry or irrational outbursts from their grandparents. This is especially true if your elderly parent is showing bad behavior in front of your kids. 

Tips to deal with irrational eldelry parents

Let’s now go into how to deal with irrational elderly parents and guilt with these eight tips. 

1. Understand root causes 

If your parent is showing regular angry or anxious behavior, you should pay close attention to the root cause. Elderly parents take out their frustrations or fears in different ways. To change this behavior, you’ll need to address the reason behind it. 

Perhaps your parents feel fearful about the aging process, or in pain due to a health condition they haven’t shared. Perhaps they’re anguished about losing their independence and depressed about losing close friends. 

It’s possible that their expression of anger, frustration, resentment and negativity has to do with something else entirely. Figure out what that might be – and then see if the behavior improves. 

2. Treat them like adults, not children

Even as your elderly parents lose their independence, they’re still adults. It’s important not to treat them like children. First, because it may be perceived as insulting or distressing to your parents, which will affect your relationship.  

Moreover, while your elderly parent might seem child-like to you, their cognitive abilities are quite different from children. Children are just learning rational thought when parents have to deal with tantrums and other emotional outbursts. 

However, elderly parents are often losing their cognitive abilities. This means they may not understand scolding and ultimatums like children do. It may even hurt their feelings and stop them from doing what you want them to.  

This doesn’t mean that you can’t set boundaries with your elderly parents or give a firm opinion. Simply put, it’s important to do so in a way that respects their autonomy as adults. 

3. Frame any changes as “me, not you”

Seniors are often resistant to change because it’s scary. It often also means losing their independence or other values that they hold dear. 

For this reason, it’s important that you frame changes in terms of your experience, not theirs. This “it’s me, not you” is a great tool to use – and it’s often effective. 

Say you want to hire help for your elderly mother during the day while you’re at work. You could tell her, for example, that you’re worried about her at work and it gives you anxiety to imagine something happening to her during those hours. There’s no need to mention why it would be good for her. Instead, your mother will understand that she’s doing you a favor and may be more likely to accept. 

You can use this strategy referencing spouses or grandkids as well. Your elderly parent may accept changes that he/she perceives as helpful to loved ones.

4. Focus on care goals, not personal preferences

Though you want the best for your elderly parent, it’s important to separate your parent’s care from your personal preferences. You should always keep these care goals in mind and filter your comments and advice with them in mind. 

It’s easy to want to control the details of your parents’ lives, especially when you perceive that they’re lacking. However, you’ll have more success if you don’t fret about every little thing and instead stay goal-focused.  

5. Set boundaries and pick your battles 

With care goals in mind, you can also better set boundaries. For the good of both you and your parents, it’s important to decide when, where and how you’re involved in their care. Doing so will allow you to stay calm and focused when stubborn or angry behavior comes up. You’ll know which battles to pick, and which not. Overall, this will help you manage the daily experience of caring for irrational elderly parents. 

6. Prioritize reassurance and connection 

The words and actions of elderly parents can hurt. Even so, you should work to understand why it’s happening and then try to strengthen your relationship. Often hurtful words, negativity or stubbornness come out of a need for loving attention. 

Whenever possible, try to communicate that you care and are here for them. Giving this reassurance may go a long way in keeping a stable relationship. Moreover, elderly patients may not remember everything, but they do recall how they feel. Communicating clearly and with positive language (both verbal and non-verbal) may help relieve your parents’ fears. 

7. Find an outlet for your feelings

Of course, self-care is a key aspect of caregiving. Don’t let feelings of guilt, anxiety and resentment take over your life. Find a way to let off steam and get your feelings off your chest. Many caregivers seek out therapy in order to do this in a healthy way. 

However, you don’t necessarily require a professional to refresh after a bad day with your parents. Discover an activity to destress or take a break, whether physical activity, journaling or some other activity. 

8. Step back if needed

Dealing with irrational elderly parents can sometimes feel like a lot. If you’re struggling, it’s important to step back and get help. This may come in various forms: whether hiring an aide for your parents, enlisting other family members or getting some form of self-care. 

In particular, if you feel like you’re victim to caregiver abuse, it’s especially important to step back and bring in outside help. 

If you do decide to hire help for your elderly parents, you should make sure that they won’t reject this help. It’s common for an aide to arrive and not be able to assist with bathing or dressing because of the patient’s resentment. Introduce the aide and your parent before care begins, and try to assuage doubts beforehand. 

Caring for elderly parents can be a handful, but hopefully with these tips, you’ll be prepared to manage the situation and maintain bonds with your loved ones during care.

If you want more resources about senior care – especially the caregiver experience, be sure to hop over to My Caring Plan.

Newsletter Sign Up