When a parent’s behavior is questionable

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Senior Life column

By Monica Rheuling

As a parent, I have often uttered the phrase “my kids are driving me crazy.” Some of their behaviors have left me shaking my head, embarrassed and questioning how they could possibly pull such stunts.
But as we age, the tables turn. The phrase now becomes “my parents are driving me crazy.” So-called bad behavior from parents often stems from the general aging process to chronic illness, physical limitations or mental illness.
According to www.AgingCare .com, adult children, who are now their parents’ caregivers, become frustrated when their elderly parents become demanding, have personality changes, throw temper tantrums or even abuse their children. AgingCare.com has compiled the top “bad behaviors” exhibited by elderly parents and some coping tips. These have been condensed for print purposes. The entire list can be found at www.agingcare.com.
Rage, anger, yelling – The aging process itself sometimes stimulates these emotions and behaviors. As a person begins to age, frustrations over life’s situations can come to a head. Losses such as retirement, deaths of family and friends, chronic pain and debilitating conditions can build frustration, making an older person more demanding and impossible to please. Dementia and other memory impairment disorders also can cause these behaviors, over which the affected individual has no control. Unfortunately, the adult child acting as the caregiver is often the target of the behaviors.
As a caregiver, the best thing is not to take it personally. This is not easy to do, but it has to be done to be able to continue the demanding job of caregiving. It may also help to seek advice from a medical doctor or mental health specialist to help relieve some of the frustrations in both the older person and the adult child.
Not showering – This seems to be a very common and frustrating complaint among caregivers. Their adult parent who once was very particular about appearance and cleanliness now refuses to bathe, wear clean clothes or take care of personal hygiene.
There could be many reasons for the all-of-a-sudden turn against hygiene. One reason could be control; the area of hygiene is an area in which they can still make decisions. The more the parent is nagged, the more they extend their remaining control and resist. Another reason could be a decline in their sense of smell. The senses are not as sharp and body odors and other smells are not detected.
Memory issues can also be blamed. Older adults may not remember they haven’t showered, they may think the clothes they are wearing are clean, or may not fully comprehend even the simplest of bathing motions.
As a caregiver, it is important to determine why bathing and hygiene care has stopped. A family doctor may help assess whether it is a matter of depression, control issues or a loss of smell. An in-home care agency or professional caregiver may be an option for assisting with bathing.
If the ceased hygiene is because of dementia, it is important to remain patient. A caregiver must move around the motions of bathing and dressing very gently. Do not force the individual into the shower or tub; redirect, distract or even put off the bath until another time. Buying several sets of the same type of clothes may help, as the dirty ones come off, the same looking ones go on. The caregiver cannot rush or insist, that will only cause frustration from both. Caregivers may have to lower their cleanliness standards and be satisfied with even the smallest successes.
Paranoia, delusions and hallucinations – These behaviors can come in many forms, from accusing family members of stealing, seeing people who aren’t there or believing someone is trying to harm them.
Sometimes these behaviors are a sign of physical illness. If an individual is in physical pain, the mind becomes the outlet. Discuss these with a family doctor so a physical can be completed and medications can be  reviewed. Some medicines have side effects, especially if not taken correctly or the dosage should be changed. 
These behaviors also could be associated with dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. As a caregiver, try to “go with the flow” of these situations. Validation is a good coping technique, because it suggests to the parent that the behavior is very important. Trying to convince them otherwise only will cause more frustration. Assure the parent he or she is safe, ask them to describe what they are seeing or feeling. It may help to better understand why these behaviors are happening and how to lessen their impact.
Other behaviors such as swearing, obsessions, hoarding and refusing care can be found on the AgingCare.com website. The author’s insight, along with other caregivers’ comments and suggestions, may help the adult child to better understand parents’ behaviors. Awareness helps caregivers to know a parent isn’t “acting badly” on purpose.

Contact Senior Life columnist Monica Ruehling at mruehling@ thenewsenterprise.com.