With age, some people may isolate themselves, or worst, ward off loved ones with aggressive or anti-social behavior. They might have mood swings and temper tantrums, alienate friends, refuse to leave the house or see a doctor, lie and manipulate you and others around you, and all sorts of other techniques that may be hard to cope with. If your parent is in assisted living, it may be even harder to adjust.

You may be feeling guilty, trapped, or like you are constantly walking on eggshells. Dealing with the many emotions and behaviors of your aging parent may be very confusing and difficult to withstand. You may not have the support from other family members that you would like. Additionally, the emotional ties you have with your parent may put you in the forefront of physical and emotional abuse, even as your parent lives in an assisted living community.

Health Causes for Behavior Changes in Seniors

Whether your parent shows a single behavior, or many, it is often the case there is a reason for the change. Some behaviors are related to the growing aches and pains of old age, some are an ailment of their own, and some behaviors may be side effects of medications.

For example, dementia may have symptoms including agitation, depression, psychosis delusions and hallucinations. Delusions concerning their caregiver or families are popular, and may include paranoia, distrust and accusations. These may be coupled with the inability to recognize familiar faces; another symptom of some forms of dementia, and the combination may be a hard thing to live with. Likewise, Alzheimer’s symptoms may include apathy, hallucinations, dysphoria and anxiety. Diabetes may cause extreme fatigue and irritability, and arthritis pain may cause sleep loss and irritability.

Other medical reasons for a change of behavior include:

  • Degenerative diseases and disorders: head injuries, brain tumors, stroke
  • Metabolic ailments: hypothyroidism, hypoglycemia, malnutrition, vitamin deficiencies, dehydration, kidney or liver failure
  • Psychological ailments: depression, emotional distress, stress, loss of sleep
  • Infections: meningitis, encephalitis, and syphilis
  • Substance-induced conditions: drug interactions, medication side-effects, alcohol and drug abuse
  • Food allergies: various types of gums, antioxidants, sulphites and other food additives

Seek medical advice if you believe behavior may be health related.

Behaviors as a Coping Mechanism

Not all behaviors are health related. Some are just the effects of feeling a loss of control, independence and ability. Perhaps anger and resentment are reactions to feeling separated from the family when moving to an assisted living facility. Being unable to live independently might feel very humiliating for your loved one, and some behaviors might just be a way to cope.

From the outside, some behaviors may seem irrational or unnecessary, but they might be a way to deal with all the changes occurring in your parent’s life.

Look to physiological and mental resource in your area if you feel like your parent may need some professional help.

Ways to cope

Whatever the reason for the unwanted behaviors, it is important to realize you are not alone. It can be hard to be tough, but stay strong with the fact that thousands of others are also in a situation like yours, and hopeful for a better way of doing business.

1.  Don’t hurt yourself trying to help: 

When airlines instruct you to place your own oxygen mask before doing so for dependents, they do so for a reason. If you become faint from a lack of oxygen, you can’t help your loved ones put their masks on; and if you become emotionally worn down from taking care of a difficult parent, you can’t help him or her deal with their own heavy emotions.

2.  Seek medical council: 

Your parent is not the first to experience these behaviors and a good geriatric doctor or mental health professional may be able to address some of those negative characteristics. What’s more is that a doctor may have ways to help them cope with any anxiety, depression or anger not related to a health condition.

3.  Change your own behavior: 

Don’t sigh or complain when they need help. Don’t rush to get them off the phone. Smile and listen to them. Act privileged to assist in their needs. It may sound ridiculous to pretend you are happy that they are allowing you to assist them, but it may be a great way to change behavior.

4.  Change the setting: 

If a traditional visit always pans out negatively, plan visits in a way that distracts the conversation from negativity. If your dad loves to fix things, bring your broken toaster over and ask him if he can help you fix it. Bring photos of happy events over to have you mom help you make a scrapbook.

5.  Communicate your feelings and encourage them to do the same: 

Sounds too simple, but it is surprising how hard it actually is to say what you are feeling without placing blame or alienation — especially, in the middle of an emotionally charged situation. Listen to them and find out if there is an issue causing them to be negative. Use “I” statements, don’t blame or assume their intentions, and stay calm.

6.  Find a support network: 

Whether you join a support group who share support techniques and words of strength, visit an online forum where you can read other’s experiences and seek advice on your own, or just sit down and with friends and family who understand your experience, knowing that someone else knows where you are and what you are feeling is a great way to get through this difficult experience.

7.  Accept that their behavior may be a side effect or their way of coping: 

Your parent may be dealing with some very ‘heavy stuff’ emotionally and these behaviors may be their way of coping. On the other hand, the behavior might just be a symptom that needs to be addressed. You don’t have to like it, but it also doesn’t help to overreact either. Make them aware of behaviors that are hurtful or especially challenging, seek medical or psychological advice, and work to make the relationship better.

8.  Know when to quit: 

If the situation is proving to be too difficult for you, find another family member to take over or seek a conservatorship or contact your local adult protective services agency. It may sound cold, but it may be the thing you need to make sure you and your family are not the casualties of your parent’s behavior. It is not selfish or ungrateful to protect yourself and your loved ones.


Photo by Gus Moretta on Unsplash