How to Deal With Irrational Elderly People?

Portrait of an angry old woman showing fist

Aging can be a very frightening experience for those who have passed middle age and are now elderly. There is, of course, the fear of death, and the deep sadness that comes from close friends and loved ones dying or being hospitalized.

Moreover, there is the possibility of aging-related illnesses, such as advancing Alzheimer’s disease or Parkinson’s disease. These and many other factors can lead elderly people to refuse help, act irrational, and sometimes even hide new symptoms. 

This type of behavior can be incredibly hard to deal with for an aging parent’s adult children or an elderly person’s caregiver. For adult children, the shift in power dynamics from the recipient of care to the caregiver for one’s aging parents can be rocky terrain to traverse, and watching one’s parents make risky, dangerous, or irrational choices can be very taxing.

If you are reading this article, it is very likely that you simply want to find the best way to care for the people you love or whose care is your responsibility. 

In this article, we seek to give you the information you need so that you can deal with the multifaceted issue of irrationality in the behavior of elderly people and provide the best elder care. Thus, we give you a number of general tips for dealing with irrational elderly people, and then we dive a little deeper into specific scenarios that show these tips in action. 

Senior women with wheelchair at home.

Dealing with Irrational Elderly People the Right Way

1. Make sure to understand their motivations for their behavior 

Aging is a difficult process for virtually everyone. Many older adults are living with dementia or mental health issues, including anxiety and depression. Learning how to tell an elderly parent they need help through incorporating their feelings can help you communicate with them better.

One important thing to recognize is that elderly people more often than not want to maintain a sense of their autonomy, and it is important to recognize this in their actions. Some questions you can ask yourself when you are trying to understand an elderly person’s actions that may seem irrational are as follows:

  • Are they acting this way out of habit?
  • Are they worried about losing their independence?
  • Are they suffering from depression or anxiety?
  • Are they confused or do they have dementia?
  • What are some things they may be fearing?

Answering these questions may help you get to the root cause of an elderly person’s actions, and with this knowledge, you can then approach the situation with a better grasp of the situation and a better sense of how to deal with seemingly irrational behavior of the elderly person in question. 

2. Be persistent but gentle 

Patience and persistence go a long way toward making conversations productive. It is important not to go in with the expectation that everything should be resolved in one sitting. You will probably have to bring up your concerns to your aged parents or person in your care numerous times. That’s why being patient is key. 

You want to avoid bombarding the senior you love with too much information in a single conversation since this can needlessly trigger their fear of losing control. And if your loved one has dementia or cognitive impairment, they may be unable to take in too much information at once. But this is also just a good general role.

Even people without cognitive impairments can be overwhelmed by too much information, especially when that information pertains to important facets of their lives. 

3. Choose your battles

People don’t respond well to nagging, real or perceived. In the long run, it might help your case to stop insisting your parents update their phones, join a fitness class or complete other beneficial, but nonessential, tasks for their well-being.

Instead, decide what issues are the most important and focus on them — at least initially. Matters involving your parents’ safety, for instance, should take top priority. But remember, they’re much more likely to take your concerns seriously if you don’t bombard them with several at once, no matter how valid they may be.

Moreover, you should avoid power struggles. Don’t push, nag, or harangue your loved one or person in your care. Giving ultimatums will only get their backs up, and yelling, arguing, slamming doors, and so on could seriously damage the relationship.

Instead, empower the recipient of your care by making them a part of every decision-making process. Validate their emotions and show them that you value their opinions.

The best way to avoid power struggles is to pick the right battles and to make sure that all decisions about an elderly person’s care are made as a group effort so that the elderly person can maintain a sense of autonomy and dignity. 

4. Timing is important 

Bringing up important and life-changing issues when everyone is already stressed or tired is a great way to ensure the discussion will be unproductive and possibly even counterproductive. When dealing with an irrational person, you must choose a time to talk about a serious matter at a time that they are feeling calm and safe.

For example, you wouldn’t want to bring up their medical care in a room full of a lot of people, even if those people are family members. An intimate setting would be far more productive. Just keep in mind that you are dealing with a fragile situation and that your elderly loved one’s mood may be unpredictable, so choosing the right time to talk about serious issues is incredibly important. 

5. Seek outside support for yourself 

If you are placed in a caregiving role for an elderly loved one, you might also be dealing with fears, such as fears of loss, and stress from the pressure of responsibility.

In order to stay calm and sensitive to your elderly loved one to provide them the support that they need, you may often find that you need support yourself. Being serene and soothing may not come easily if you yourself feel frightened, helpless, and frustrated.

If this is the case, it can be a great idea to divert some of your caregiving energy to yourself and get some outside support, be it a meditation group, a counselor, or a support group. These can help you with setting boundaries that are necessary for high-quality caregiving. 

6. Spend more time with the elderly person in your care 

Often, elderly people feel left behind. Sometimes their friends have died or are dealing with serious health issues and they can feel left behind by the world. This feeling of loneliness only serves to compound the many fears that come with aging. 

Sometimes the best thing that you can do for your elderly loved one is to simply spend quality time with them. You can give suggestions for their care needs, but one of the best ways to contribute to that care is to be with them.

This can be a great opportunity for both adult children and their elderly loved ones because its a chance to develop a healthy, trusting, and harmonious relationship that will make having the important conversations a lot easier. 

7. Ask questions

Instead of telling your elderly loved one what to do, try involving them in the discussion as much as possible. One of the best ways to deal with difficult elderly parents is to ask them questions about how they are feeling and what they would like to do.

This really comes down to treating your elderly parents with the care and sensitivity that you might give to a child but with the trust and inclusiveness that is proper when dealing with adults. 

When people get older, they do not simply stop feeling like adults, and so when they are talked at as if they were helpless or unable to make decisions, that can feel very wrong to them. So ask questions. This gives validation and can be a great first step in developing a harmonious and productive relationship. 

8. Focus on the benefits 

Always focus on the benefits of your proposed solution. For instance, if you see assisted living as the answer, emphasize the variety of social and recreational activities that these communities offer.

If you see in-home care as the answer, focus on the advantages of this solution. Elderly people will often see only the downsides of these types of living situations so it is incredibly important to be the champion of the care you believe that they need. 

9. Outline the consequences 

If the elderly person or persons in your care are still bound and determined to stay in their four-bedroom house or to keep driving, calmly let them know about the possible consequences of their actions. Don’t frame things in punitive terms or talk to them like they’re children.

Instead, remind them that their actions extend beyond the family. Remind them that everyone needs to consider the potential effects their actions might have on other people. For example, continuing to drive with specific impairments or health problems might put not only their lives but the lives of other unknown drivers at risk.

Outlining the consequences in this way can be a wake-up call and has the potential to affect real change in their behavior. 

Angry old women looking each other sitting in living room, communication problem

Dealing with Irrational Elderly Parents and Others: Specific Examples

1. Anger, Hostility, Tantrums, and Outbursts 

If you are met with anger,  hostility, or other difficult behavior when you approach your loved one about your concerns, it can feel like a personal attack. However, the more you know about the potential causes for that anger, the more you can not take it personally and get any follow-up care your loved one may need.

The aging process is not easy and can cause frustration in seniors. Having a bit of empathy and putting yourself in their shoes can soften your approach and help you not take any attacks personally. When possible, take a break from your caregiving roles through respite care solutions so you can re-enter your role with a relaxed perspective.

2. Abusive Behavior

Sometimes a parent’s behavior that begins with anger and stubbornness can turn into abusiveness. Abusive behavior occasionally occurs in older adults. Sometimes, this behavior stems from a mental illness that your loved one has lived with for years.

In this case, you may already have some coping skills in your personal mental health toolbox that can help you navigate the situation. Other times, abusive behavior is new. This can indicate a change in mental health or cognition.

You can first address abusive behavior by trying to explain how their behavior makes you feel. You can also leave the situation as long as your loved one is safe before you go.

Finally, if abusive behavior continues, you can consider outside help, such as respite care, senior living communities, or other types of senior care to give you the break you need and deserve and potentially give your loved one the care they might not want but truly need. 

3. Using Inappropriate Language or Making Offensive Comments 

Cognitive decline is often the reason behind seniors making offensive comments or using inappropriate language. However, it can still be jarring for adult children or caregivers to hear, even if they’re aware of the source. 

When seniors begin using new inappropriate language or offensive comments, it is often because they are in pain, frustrated, or reaching a new stage in their cognitive decline. A sudden personality change could also point to an infection.

Ignoring the behavior can often solve it right away. You can also call out the behavior and say you do not like it when they do that. However, if your loved one has dementia, it is important for you to note that they will likely not be able to remember your direction or consequences.

4. Paranoia, Delusions, and Hallucinations 

It is startling to watch your loved one experience delusions or paranoia. Cognitive decline is often the reason why it happens, but you may also find that your loved one is experiencing a medication side effect.

Medications can cause paranoia, hallucinations, memory loss, and delusions. Be sure you speak to your loved one’s physician or pharmacist to talk about these types of side effects. Dementia and infections, such as a UTI, can also cause this type of behavior.

The best course of action in these troubling cases is to work with your loved one’s geriatric medical team and social worker to discover the underlying cause of the delusions or paranoia. Once you are able to discern if it is a dementia side effect, an infection, or a medication issue, you can begin to make the appropriate changes.

Navigating the Behavior of Irrational Elderly People

When dealing with elderly people, whether they are loved ones for who you are a family caregiver or simply people put in your care through institutional means, can be extremely tricky.

You are dealing with adults who have the right to make their own decisions, and at the same time, they may often act in irrational and dangerous ways, and often they can experience various behavioral changes that might leave you confused or frustrated.

It is important to make sure that the elderly people you are dealing with know that you value their opinions and respect their autonomy, while at the same time being persistent in pursuing the best possible health care situation for them.

Of course, when caring for elderly people, one should not forget that they can seek out help and support for themselves. 

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