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.


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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.



By Marlo Sollitto

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  1. Very good article. I’ve been experiencing some of these symptoms with my elderly mom. She lost her partner a couple years ago and has been very lonely. Additionally in 2003 she had a serious stroke that affected her memory however she is a fighter and made sure to prove everyone wrong that she wouldn’t recover. At the time the doctor said never to let her drive alone or do the finances. She was able to snap back about 95% to her regular self. However recently at 79 she had a small stroke. This time the doctor said it shouldn’t affect her and as the doctor mentioned she recovered from it fairly well however it has affected her personality. I am an only child. My one and only adult child lives in Germany. My husband and I live separately. So it is pretty much up to me to care for her and I work full time. We live separately, thank heaven, but she constantly calls me wants me to visit or talk on the phone when it often isn’t suitable. I try to accommodate best I can but I get guilty feeling when I have to tell her I can’t oblige. We recently got a cat for her and she seems to have slowed down w/seeking attention. It’s been a challenge in many aspects of both our lives. We both just do our best. Getting old is work for the elderly and their caregivers for sure.
    This article has been very helpful. Thank you.

  2. This sounds exactly like me and my mother. She demands my CONSTANT attention. I have a hard time because I am a single mom with 3 children. My daughter has schitzoaffective disorder. So I can’t fully focus on my mom. She is a hypochondriac and has been in the emergency rm all the time. She won’t accept help in the home and will not leave her house. She will not allow me to move in there either. I am so stressed because she does not accept a solution.

    I don’t know how to handle this and I am physically and emotionally exhausted.

    1. My Dad’s mental health really took a dive with the death of my mother. He has always had an annoying personality so we didn’t notice twenty years ago that this had already started. I know he can’t help what he is doing it is so obviously dementia but my sister refuses to see it. She believes what he does is on purpose. As a result she had dropped all contact with Dad and me, leaving me to deal with this on my own. I am working with our local chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association. If it wasn’t for them I don’t know what I would do.

  3. I moved in with my aging mom almost11 years ago. We use to have fun together and then 4 years ago I became ill. Since then she listens in on all my phone conversations. Butts in and puts her 2 cents in and corrects me constantly. I am not allowed to close my bedroom door for privacy. It must stay open at all times. Every time I’m on the phone she interrupts me. She wants my undivided attention. She complains my sisters call me but not her. I bought her an iPhone + services so she could call them when ever she want. Her excuse is she doesn’t understand how to use it. Several people have tried to teach her but doesn’t get it. She’s been cussin and I remind her she would wash our mouths with soap. Hearing her cuss sends me reeling.i still remember the taste of the nasty soap. You won’t her me cussing.she is also a money hoarder. She hordes her money and makes me spend mine. She has me paying a major bill which leaves me without money at the end od the month. Her safety net is 350 dollars and you cand bet it’s there at the end od the month. She pleads she broke. I’m now on a set income from social security. She hordes her money and expects me to pay the one major bill. She ends up with 200 dollars more a month then me. She seldom buys food that I eat but every thing she need she has. I am not an only child. One in Florida and one in Houston and one 5 miles away. I Get no help or relieve just grief from them. My mother is also OCD. And panics if she’s 1 Penney off in check book. She makes nasty remarks when I walk away. I’ve tried talking calmingly to her but she always turns thing on me as my fault. I am so burnt out and when I do get away I have to face anger and a lot of silent treatment when I get home. She’s 91 and I’m 67. When any one does call it’s hey sweetie hey honey. But when she talks to me its a raised voice. I could go on and on but I’m totally burned out and I don’t know what to do. My going to church for 2 hours displeases her so bad. She’s very good at putting a guilt trip on me and I cringe. I have no life. My car moves she’s in it. I can’t go to the grocery store alone.
    Drowning in Louisiana

    1. Lord this scenario sounds just like my mom (92) and my sister (65). My sister packed up, put most of her things in storage in NH and moved in with mom to help her 2 years ago.Great at first…slowly but surely began criticizing, accusing, now with a few curse words thrown in. My sister doesn’t do anything around the house and is no help to her at all.(Certainly not true) They’re supposed to be splitting costs but she always telling my sister to needs to pay more because of whatever. This behavior is now almost daily. Yesterday she told my sister “get upstairs so I don’t have to look at you”. She treats her like she’s 12. I am 16 hrs away so am not physically there to help deal with this. Our brother is about 25 minutes away, he can usually calm her down but the things she tells him about my poor sister, well, it’s just awful stuff. The whole point of this move was so she would be taken care of as she needs, which now she’s independent, just doesn’t drive. Of course she can’t do the amount of activity she used to but still cooking those big dinners! Usually ver sweet to everybody else. My sister has always been so devoted to her and should mom become bedridden, my sister will take excellent care of her. That is if she stays, it’s gotten that bad. This I’d not the mom we know.

  4. My husband and I are to the end of our rope. My father-in-law will not do anything. No shower he won’t eat. Every thing you said that’s him it’s ruining our relationship and I want to leave. What do I do who can I speak to.

  5. It’s a relief just hearing how many others go through mother just interrupts everything with ocd repetitive noise..panic attacks an maybe 25% pain complaints..moans..crying..I’m bombarded daily by this..she won’t do it if I’m asleep..or she’s out in public.shes always been difficult..but it’s increased 8 times fold..she’s throwing things at me..threatens to call police an report abuse..I don’t touch her..if we dissagree..she gets foul mouthed..and ofensive..LOUD..I end up yelling back 4 her silence..she won’t get help..I’ve started feeling sick..I’ll go 2 new doc this kidney..breast great learn coping skills..put names 2 these types of experiences..ty