If you are an adult, either a caregiver or simply an individual with an older person in your life, you may be noticing that that person increasingly seems angry, short-tempered, intolerant, or simply nasty. One of your children may have remarked that “Grandpa is always grumpy,” or is upset because a grandparent reprimanded him or her for making noise, playing the TV too loudly, or making a mess. For many adults with older people in their lives, this can be a troubling situation, especially if it seems to be getting worse over time.

To be able to manage this situation, keep your relationship with your older loved one from deteriorating, and retain your sanity, you first need to understand what is happening and why that person is acting the way he or she is.

One thing to remember is that both age and illness can often intensify personality traits that an individual may have had their entire life. The person who always wanted to be the center of attention becomes more demanding. The person who often found fault with others now seems to be hypercritical and even mean in his or her opinions of others. The person who was always somewhat intolerant of anyone different or not like them, now seems downright bigoted. Rudeness, a tendency to interrupt, neediness, and manipulation may all become more pronounced as a person ages.

Part of the reason for this is that some older people simply become less sensitive to others as they age.  Particularly for older people who live alone or who have been living alone for a while, their tolerance of the way others do things, their tolerance for others at all, can be diminished simply as a result of their having been able to do things pretty much their way for a long period of time: when you have no one but yourself to answer to, it becomes hard to remember to accept other people’s preference and their way of doing things. Hence, the older person may have, for example, a daily schedule that he or she keeps to quite regularly. He or she may eat the main meal of the day at noon, settle in to watch the news at four in the afternoon, be accustomed to watching certain shows, and bathing and going to bed at a certain time.

But, for example, if this person, a grandparent or elderly aunt, comes to visit, they may find it difficult to accommodate the schedule, the activity, and the choices in your house. This can lead to arguments and hurt feelings.

Older people may, similarly, not be aware of, or not buy into today’s norms regarding the use of certain words or racial or ethnic slurs. Bigotry, intolerance, or attitudes that were quite common in their day are usually no longer tolerated in polite company. But they often seem to neither know nor care, still coming out with statements or opinions that most of us have long since shed and which we try hard not to see taking root in our children. Because of this, having Grandpa spout off about this group or having Grandma making disparaging comments about that set of people at the dinner table can often create problems.

Older people often also find themselves living in a world they no longer understand. They very rules they lived by, it can seem to them, have been tossed aside; and the new world to which we continually adjust to into which our children are growing can often seem downright scary to many older individuals. This sense of isolation can also be greatly increased as an older person’s peers –a spouse, cousins, friends and acquaintances- themselves pass away. The world can be a lonely place when everyone you “know” is dead, no matter how many adult children, grandchildren, or even great-grandchildren you may have.

Older people also, as they struggle to deal with their own diminished capacities, with physical deterioration and the indignities this often brings about, often express their own fear, embarrassment, and discomfort as hostility. They may resent having to be helped into or out of a chair; they may resent having to use a cane or a walker and the need for someone to help them up the walkway or the front steps. They may resent (and be humiliated by) needing help in the bathroom. Added to this is the fact that it often seems to them that the world (and their own families) no longer care about how productive they may have been in the past. Beyond physical ailments and limitations, diminished mental capacity can often be extremely upsetting to an older person. Forgetfulness, losing things, or the inability to understand the commands and remote control on their new cable TV box can all be extremely frustrating (and frightening!) to an older person. This frustration and fear can often be expressed as hostility. A diminished sense of hearing may lead to frustration at the inability to follow a conversation or hear the television if there is other noise in the room.

It is also often the case that an older person will become upset and hostile when their increasing inability to live on their own becomes unavoidably apparent. Many fear giving up their independence. Many fear losing their home and having to give up familiar surroundings. Many fear the prospect of an assisted living facility or nursing home. In the face of the loss of control they fear, some older people try to prove their independence by making decisions –often financial decisions- that are not well thought out, are very questionable, or are beyond their means. Especially in these cases, it is important to ascertain whether or not your older loved one has been the victim of fraud or an unscrupulous business.

Some people also use anger as a way to control others; and this is no less true of older people than it is with other age groups. Anger can be a form of manipulation, just as guilt and a show of helplessness can be. All three can be a way to retain power over others or to get others to notice the person using any of these tools to get others to do what they want.

Sometimes, the hostility of older people is not expressed overtly, but is either internalized (which can contribute to depression), or is exhibited as passivity, disinterest, or withdrawal. Depression in older people may be indicated by a loss of interest in almost everything; not welcoming visits, or turning down invitations to join the family for holidays or get-togethers.

Finally, it is important to recognize that diseases like Alzheimer’s and dementia can also cause many of these behaviors…and in those cases the person really doesn’t have the control over what they do or say that we might hope they’d exhibit.

Whether you are a direct caregiver of an elderly person, or simply have an older person in your life, there are several things you can do:

  • The first is to not take it personally. In the face of an aggressive or hostile older person who is unrelentingly demanding, nasty, critical, or intolerant, this may not be easy. But in many ways it is not much different than being the target of a child who lashes out when afraid, hurt, or upset. Keeping the source in perspective can be very helpful.
  • The second thing you can do is to help other family members understand why Grandpa or Grandma may be acting this way. Reminding children that Grandpa doesn’t like too much noise, or that Grandma likes to watch a certain program and the TV has to be shared, can go a long way towards making an older relative’s visits more pleasant all around.
  • Finally, getting and understanding as much information as you can about an older person’s medical condition is also important. Getting an older person’s permission for you to speak with their doctors as their health care agent can be an important part of this process.

If you are having difficulty dealing with an older person in your life, if you feel that your patience is at an end and you no longer know how to deal with his or her anger or hostility, we urge you to call Capital EAP and speak with one of our trained counselors. We can help you manage your relationship with your older loved one so that the relationship is not ruptured and both you and they can enjoy your continued participation in each other’s lives. We’re here to help.

Remember: we’re your EAP.