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When Nice Aging Parents Start Behaving Badly

We’re hearing from a lot of new caregivers lately.  Their parents are in their 80’s and 90’s usually.  The parent was doing fairly well for a time. Then things began to change. Suddenly, the parent has an outburst.

A person who never said a bad word curses at you, or someone else.  Old Dad gets combative. Mom seems so irritable.  They can’t remember that you were coming when you showed up. What the heck is going on, you wonder.

If your parent is forgetting to pay bills, or forgets that you visited yesterday, it’s a huge red flag for you.  Most of us dismiss this at first. They’re just getting old. Or, getting forgetful is “normal”, you tell yourself.  You rush in to take care of things.  You offer to help. You are met with nasty resistance.

As time goes by, your parent is making more and more mistakes, the memory problems are getting worse and you now know leaving her to her own devices is dangerous.  She thinks she’s just fine.  Should you step in and get her all upset?  Should you just let her do whatever she wants? After all, she’s your mother.

The answer is “no”, you can’t just let a parent with significant memory problems go on as if nothing were wrong, even if she gets upset with you. At some point, the adult child who loves a parent must step in.  You may end up setting limits, making new rules, or taking over certain decisions.  This is not easy for most people. We are so accustomed to our parent making her own decisions, that to dare to tell her what to do is very uncomfortable.

Some people call this “switching roles” or “parenting your parent”.  What it means is that your job, one you’ve never done before, is to be sure your parent is safe and cared for, just as your parent once did for you.  The problem is, your parent is not going to grow up, become more mature and eventually appreciate your efforts.  So where does that leave you?

For most adult children who must learn this new job of safety monitor, it leaves you with a fair amount of stress and anxiety.  Some adult children still feel intimidated by an imperious aging parent, even one who is infirm, demented or unable to care for herself independently.  It takes some doing to face this and cope, but it can be done.

Here are five strategies to cope with switching roles and learning to manage your rebellious or difficult aging parent who doesn’t want you to take over anything.

1.  Make peace with the reality of your parent’s aging.  It isn’t going away. It isn’t going to get easier.  With dementia, memory loss and other conditions, behavior of an aging person can change dramatically.  The judgment your parent once had may be very damaged. It can’t be fixed.  Your parent needs your help. Accept that this may be hard for you.

2. Start to collect information as soon as your parent demonstrates those red flags, those signs of trouble you’ve been denying, or she has.  Does she have legal documents, such as durable power of attorney, trust and healthcare proxy? Where are they? When were they last updated?  You may need to take over on any one of them some day.  Find out about parent’s income, bank accounts and where their records are kept. It’s essential.

3.  If your parent is dangerous with her habitual activities such as driving, paying bills or buying groceries, step in.  Make rules. Learn a strategy for getting Mom to give up the car keys.  Gently insist on helping with bill payment.  Offer to hire someone to help keep groceries in the house or offer to do this chore if you live in the area.

4.  Do not expect your parent to accept logical arguments about why you need to help out.  It’s not about logic for her.  It’s about fear of losing control.  Acknowledge this with her and respect the feeling. And as you would with a teenager, do what is needed to keep her safe, even if she doesn’t like it.

5. Avoid being reactive when your parent gets upset with your “rules” or the limits you set.  You need not engage in an argument.  “Let’s not fuss about this” is a perfectly acceptable response.  Then keep on doing what you need to do. Trying to explain why you need to keep a parent safe is unnecessary. She may forget the explanation anyway.  Keep your focus on safety and quality of life. Get past the fact that you don’t like telling Mom what to do.

If you are struggling with any of this, you are not alone.  Millions of adult children are facing this role reversal with aging parents.  If you find yourself at your wits’ end, help is here.  We give advice, work with you and your siblings, help you come up with a clear plan about what to do, and help you nip disagreements in the bud. You get a huge benefit and a great head start with relatively little expert advice from us. Click here for a quick, complimentary strategy session. We offer ongoing coaching too!

Until next time,

Carolyn Rosenblatt and Dr. Mikol Davis


****P.S.  We are always here to help you get through the challenges of aging.

Please let us help you help the ones you love.

We are offering a free strategy session to our readers, just click HERE.


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