How to Handle an Elderly Parent's Bad Behavior

"My mother is driving me crazy!" This phrase is uttered (or screamed) by caregivers everywhere who are caring for elderly parents. As if they didn't have enough to do, caregivers often have to deal with bad behavior by their elderly parents. The message boards are filled with stories of demanding elderly parents, personality changes, hallucinations, temper tantrums…even abuse. We've compiled the top 10 bad behaviors that elderly parents exhibit, along with some tips for coping with them.

Bad Behavior #1: Rage, Anger, Yelling

Age and illness can intensify longstanding personality traits in some unpleasant ways: An irritable person may become enraged, an impatient person demanding and impossible to please. Unfortunately, the person taking care of the elderly parent is often the target.

What to do:
Try to identify the cause of the anger. In most elderly individuals, behaviors are a symptom of distress.

The aging process in and of itself sometimes brings about anger, as seniors vent frustration about getting old, having chronic pain, losing friends, having memory issues, being incontinent – all of the undignified things that can happen to us as we age.

In addition, Alzheimer's disease and dementia can also cause these behaviors, in which case, your parent doesn't have control.

As a caregiver, the best thing you can do is not take it personally. Focus on the positive, ignore the negative, and take a break from caregiving when you can by finding some respite. Get some fresh air, do something you love or call a friend.

You might also want to consider calling in a home health nurse. Elders often reserve their worst behavior for those they are closest to, i.e. family members. The bad behavior might not surface in front of a stranger. And you get a much-need break.

More info:
How to handle anger and rage in elderly parents

What caregivers are saying- Join the discussion:
"Help! Mom is becoming mean and hateful and unreasonable."

Bad Behavior #2: Abuse

Sometimes, elderly parents turn on the child that is trying so hard to take care of them and the result is abuse of the caregiver. Stories of mental, emotional, even physical abuse to the adult child are all-to-common.Unless the elder has a personality disorder or mental illness, they turn on the one adult child who is showing the most love because they feel safe enough to do so. They don't consciously abuse this son or daughter, but they are frustrated and need to vent this frustration about getting old, having chronic pain, losing a spouse and friends, having memory issues, being incontinent, etc.

What to do:
Try talking to them about how the abusive behavior makes you feel. However, many caregivers don't get very far by talking. If the abuse is verbal or emotional, making them realize all that you do for them, by not doing it for awhile, may drive home the point that they better be nicer to you, or you will leave. Finding a little respite for yourself by getting help will allow your parent to gain a new appreciation for all you do.

If the elderly parent is physically abusing their caregiver, then professional help, be it the authorities or a counselor may need to get involved.

More info:
Elderly parents who abuse their caregivers

What caregivers are saying- Join the discussion:
"My elderly parents treat me as their whipping board."

Bad Behavior #3: Not Showering

The issue of elders who were once reasonably clean refusing to take showers, wear fresh clothes and take care of personal hygiene is one that is far more common than most people think - and it's very frustrating for caregivers.

Sometimes the issue is depression. Another factor is control. As people age, they lose more and more control over their lives. But one thing they generally can control is dressing and showers. The more they are nagged, the more they resist.

A decreased sense of sight and smell may be causing the problem. What your nose picks up as old sweat, they don't even notice. Or, memory could be to blame. The days go by. They aren't marked with tons of activities, there isn't something special about Wednesday – it could be Tuesday or Thursday – they lose track of time and don't realize how long it's been since they showered.

Another big issue can be fear or discomfort: Fear of slipping in the tub; or embarrassment about asking for help.

What to do:
The first step is to determine why they have stopped bathing. If they have lost their sense of smell, see your doctor. Medications your parent is taking, or some unrelated disorder may be at fault for a loss of smell.

If depression is the cause, seek professional help. Therapy and medications can help. If modesty is a problem and the elder doesn't want a family member helping her take a bath, because it's far too intimate, they may be open to having an in-home care agency coming in for the sole purpose of a bath.

If they are afraid of the water (or sitting in the tub), there are many types of shower chairs that can help.

If the person is in a demented state and afraid while bathing, then you must move gently. Don't insist on a shower or bath. Begin with just asking if you can wipe off the person's face. Gradually move to under-arms and other parts of the body, talking and telling them what you are doing as you go.

Do your best to keep your parent clean. However, too much nagging is counter-productive, and at the end of the day you may have to lower your standards and definition of cleanliness.

More info:
Dad won't shower or change his clothes. What can I do?

What caregivers are saying- Join the discussion:
""My mother refuses to take a shower."

Bad Behavior #4: Swearing, Offensive Language and Inappropriate Comments

When a normally loving father or mother is suddenly using the worst profanities, using offensive language or saying inappropriate things, family members are baffled as to why…and what to do about it.

We've heard stories about parents who used to be mild-mannered, proper, and would never utter a four-letter word suddenly cursing at their caregiver or calling them insulting names. When it happens in public, it's embarrassing; when it happens in private it's hurtful.

What to do:
When the behavior is out-of-character for an elder, the start of Alzheimer's or dementia is a likely cause.

How do you deal with swearing? A couple of ideas: when a swearing tirade sets in, use distraction. Diverting your elderly parent's attention is a simple, but effective technique. Once their mind is redirected, the swearing fit may end.

Also, try bringing up happy times from the old days. Like all people, elders love to reminisce about their lives "back in the day." Using their long-term memory skills, the elderly parent will likely forget about whatever it is in the present that set them off.

If none of this works, back off, disappear and wait for it to blow over.

More info:
What to do when elderly parents swear and use foul language

What caregivers are saying- Join the discussion:
"My father never said a 4-letter word in his life. Now he is using the worst profanity

Bad Behavior #5: Paranoia and Hallucinations

Paranoia and hallucinations in the elderly can take many forms, from accusing family members of stealing, seeing people who aren't there or believing someone is trying to murder them.

What to do:
Sometimes hallucinations and delusions in elders are a sign of a physical illness. Keep track of what the elder is experiencing and discuss it with the doctor. It could also be a side-effect of a medication your elderly parent is taking. See your doctor, describe the symptoms and ask if your parent's medication needs to be changed.

Oftentimes, paranoia and hallucinations are associated with Alzheimer's disease or dementia. When this is the case, caregiving experts seem to agree: when faced with paranoia or hallucinations, the best thing to do is just relax and go with the flow. More often than not, trying to "talk them out" of a delusion won't work. Validation is a good coping technique, because what the elder is seeing, hearing or experiencing is very real to them. Convincing them otherwise is fruitless.

Bad Behavior #6: Strange Obsessions

Saving tissues, worrying if its time to take their meds, constantly picking at their skin, hypochondria…these types of obsessive behaviors disrupt the daily lives of elderly parents and their caregivers. Obsession is sometimes related to an addictive personality, or a past history of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD).

What to do:
View your parent's obsessive-compulsive behaviors as a symptom, not a character flaw.

Watch for signs that certain events trigger your parent's obsession. If the obsession seems to be related to a specific event or activity, avoid it as much as possible.

Do not participate in your parent's obsessions. If you have helped with rituals in the past, change this pattern immediately. Family and friends must resist helping with ritual behaviors.

Obsessive behavior can be related to a number of other disorders, including anxiety, depression or dementia. Obsessive disorders can be treated by mental health professionals, so make an appointment on your parent's behalf. Therapy and/or medication may be the answer. Look into therapy groups, outpatient and inpatient programs in your area.

More info:
OCD in the elderly

Join the discussion:
"My mother has an obsession with tissues. She stashes them everywhere."

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Bad Behavior #7: Hoarding

When an elderly parent hoards (acquiring and failing to throw out a large number of items), once again the on-set of Alzheimer's or dementia could be at fault. Someone's pre-Alzheimer's personality may trigger hoarding behavior at the onset of the disease.

For example, an elderly parent who was already prone to experiencing anxiety, when faced with aging and the possibility of outliving their resources, may begin to collect and save against the onslaught of feeling overwhelmed by what lies ahead.

Others will hold on to items because they fear their memories will be lost without that tangible evidence of the past.

What to do:
You can try to reason, and even talk about items to throw out and give away. Or create a memory box, a place to keep "special things." With extreme hoarders, medication and family counseling could make a big difference in how you cope and manage.

More info:
How to handle hoarding

What caregivers are saying- Join the discussion:
"My mother hoards spoiled food."

Bad Behavior #8: Refusing to Let Outside Caregivers into Their House

The presence of an outsider suggests to the elder that their family can't (or doesn't want to) take care of their needs. It also magnifies the extent of the elders' care needs and makes them feel vulnerable.

What to do:
Constant reassurance is necessary. Understanding the elder's fear and vulnerability is necessary in order for you to cope with this problem. Have serious talks with them, and realize the first time may not work. It could take several months convince them.

Another strategy is to start small, and ask your parent to "give it a try." Present the idea to your elderly parent as a trial. Have someone come in for one day a week for a few hours, just to vacuum, take out the trash or wash clothes. Experienced senior care agencies know how to handle situations like this, so consult them when necessary. Once they get used to having someone in the house, they may be fine with it.

More info:
When parent won't let home health care workers into their home

What caregivers are saying- Join the discussion:
"Dad won't let outside caregivers into his house"

Bad Behavior #9: Over-Spending or Extreme Frugalness

Some caregivers are pulling out their hair over elderly mother or father's shopaholic habits. Others are going crazy over "frugal," "thrifty," or downright cheap elderly parents.

The ability to handle one's own money is about power and independence. If age or disease takes away some of your independence in other areas, a person is apt to try to make up for this loss in another way.

Spending is one of those ways. Spending (or saving) can help a person feel powerful. Spending (or saving) also can be like a drug to cover up the fear underneath those losses.

What to do:
The parents will insist there is no problem. It's their money and they can spend it as they choose. They do have a right, to an extent, to spend their money as they see fit.

For over-spenders, when their spending habits are draining the last of their finances, or forcing others to cover expenses they should be paying for themselves, it's time to step in. If you can show them the problem in black and white – the total amount spent on shopping, or receipts that others have spent on their care, such as food and medications – it might hit home.

As with so many tricky areas with aging parents, sometimes a third party is best brought in. The key is this person, be it a financial professional, a friend, or a spiritual leader, is not the adult child.

Money hoarders may have these behaviors as a result of having lived through the Great Depression, a down economy, past job loss and countless other situations in which money was virtually non-existent. They feared "going broke" and being able to take care of their family. However, they likely don't want to see a family member go through the financial hardships either. Showing them the out-of-pocket expenses regarding their care that you must pay might help. Bringing in a financial advisor is another route to go.

More info:
"Help! Mom's a shopahaulic"

What caregivers are saying- Join the discussion:
"Thrifty...or Cheap Elderly Relatives."

Bad Behavior #10: Wants All the Caregiver's Time and Attention

Once an adult son or daughter becomes a caregiver, their elderly parent might construe that commitment as a 24-hour full-time job. However, the caregiver has other priorities…work, family, etc. The parent becomes completely dependent on the caregiver for all physical and emotional needs, and therefore are over-demanding of your time. This is a hard transition.

What to do:
This is a time when a caregiver needs to make themselves a priority. Caregiving is stressful but when it turns into a full-time job, with a demanding parent, it is a recipe for caregiver burnout.

Don't get lost in caring for others. Make yourself a priority. Get your parent involved in senior activities or adult day care, depending on their capabilities. They will probably go kicking and screaming, but having others to interact with combats the loneliness and makes them a bit less dependent on you. If your parent is housebound, consider a home companion to visit on a regular basis. Home companions are available through home health care agencies, churches and charitable organizations.

More info:
Burned out caregivers

What caregivers are saying- Join the discussion:
"Mom is emotionally dependent on me."

 Comments 1 to 10 of 115 

When my partner of 39 years lost his sight due to macular degenerations six months ago, we were able to cope. However last month he began to have hallucinations. When I would take him to medical appointments, he would say that the buildings were moving or that I was driving into a brick wall. He became very fearful (understandable so). Four physicians and eye specialists later, we finally found the cause. We finally were able to determine the cause is due to the functioning of the brain that interprets sight. THE DIAGNOSIS WAS CHARLES BONNET SYNDROME. Although first described in the 1760's, it still remains virtually unknown to many/most physicians and eye specialists. Once we found the cause and were able to understand the process, we were able to handle the situation. The problem generally resolves within a year to eighteen months, however there are several reports of treatments that seem very positive. Unfortunately, these require hospitalization for two or three days, and none of these therapies are recognized by his current insurance. Sigh... Google, read and print out information about CHARLES BONNET SYNDROME and share it with your caregivers and medical providers. Hopefully, this post may help others facing similar situations.

Does having macular degeneration cause this syndrome? Could he have had only Charles Bonnet syndrome, and not macular? What I mean is, do they go hand in hand or no?

I just experienced this at church on Easter Sunday. We were visiting our son's church in another town. An older man in a wheelchair was pushed into the sanctuary by a grown son. The older man let out a profanity and his wife looked around terrified. Thankfully, over the next few minutes, various church and staff members came by and spoke with the older man, welcoming him with kind words. It seemed to calm the older couple and was evidence of God's grace. Missy Buchanan; Author, Talking with God in Old Age (Upper Room Books)

Oh boy, I can definitely relate to yelling, screaming and carrying on. I don't take it personally. I just do the best job I can and ignore all the negativity that comes with caregiving. And boy have I experienced impatience! They want everything done NOW.

frmeyers - This is just fascinating. Not trying to make light of what you both went through, but the brain is just amazing. There is a type of dementia called Lewy Body. It too is one specific diagnosis, like CBS, that most have not heard of. yet it is the 2nd biggest cause of dementia. One of the hallmarks of it is "seeing creatures". Typically it will be a animal, a pet type of animal, not threatening but just appears and is 100% real. Like CBS, having good lighting or a change in light (dark to light and vice versa) or shifting where you are looking (like in CBS) helps the creature go away. Lewy Body dementia seems to be more episodic rather than constant like Alzheimer's. My mom is in independent living in her 90's- she is really good maybe 80% of the time (bathes, does her hair, laundry, makes breakfast, know's what's what in current events). Then there will be an episode usually triggered by not taking her med's. Twice she has told me that someone's cat (black & white and silent) has gotten into her apt and once it was a rabbit. Now they do have pets in her building so I'm thinking that's the case but then she tells me that it must have come thru her balcony. Now she in on the 3rd floor and only a bird could do that if it was clever. It doesn't stay or jump into her lap or eat or speak, it just is there being a cat or rabbit and then it's gone. It doesn't seem to make her anxious, its just is there. Anyway, her gerontologist told me about Lewy Body when she told her the cat story. My mom also for a couple of days kept seeing cobblestones instead of carpet and cement, and the trees would have a pattern over them (as if you were looking through a screen or cookie) this was not scary but annoying for her but she found if she looked side to side or looked up to the sky, it would go away. This is also very CBS according to the gerontologist. CBS and Lewy both involve the same area of the brain. Her doc suggested things that are critical for the very elderly but still capable: lots of light, and put those suckers on timers for AM (when the sun starts) & PM (1 hr before sundown); extra glasses in frames that are all the same; a hearing aid even if their hearing is still pretty good; open clean lines low furniture that is at her eyelevel (think Ikea); and no rugs. We've done this and life is much better. So are you all thru the CBS episodes? Some people see the same images over and over, like looking at a painting. I just find it all so amazing what the brain can do.

My mother had CBS, came from macular degeneration, a cataract on the better eye, and severe hypoglycemia due to an undiagnosed lesion on her pancreas. Removed the cataract and the lesion and she was fine. Except she has become addicted to peppermint life savers and sits with her audiobook sucking slurping and smacking and I cannot say anything or she will be hurt, sulk, and stay in bed with the covers over her head for a full day. Then she will go back to sucking slurping and smacking.

My elders have demonstrated nine out of the ten bad behaviors. I am now just waiting for them to start hoarding.

Just a thank you to agingcare. This article is exactly what I needed. Unfortunately, I am dealing with several of these behaviors at the same time. You folks are lifesavers: (1) for acknowledging these situations exist, and that we are not alone, and (2) practical coping mechanisms. Many thanks again!

My elders exemplify 9 out of the 10 bad behaviors. Now, all I'm waiting for is them to start hoarding and then they're be exemplary in demonstrating bad behavior. :-) Tschuss! :-) Wayne

Dad, who has some dementia, just got a new hobby that he is obsessed with. It's nose picking. I mentioned it to the nursing home and they just shrugged.

 Comments 1 to 10 of 115 
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The Community for Family Caregivers is an online forum created to Support Caregivers of Elderly and Aging Parents. The material of this web site is provided for informational purposes only. does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment; or legal, financial or any other professional services advice.