How to Deal With Difficult Elderly Parents

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Your parents’ aging, coupled with your own life stresses, can be difficult on a good day. When your elderly parent is not receptive to your help, or is ungrateful or downright mean, you may question your involvement altogether. However, sympathy, understanding and the ability to step back and care for yourself can significantly improve your relationship.

Coping With Dementia

A 2005 Postgraduate Medicine special report published by UC Davis, "Treatment of Dementia and its Disturbances," states that dementia damages brain tissue and causes a severe deficit in thinking ability and memory. It is especially common in adults over age 85. A parent experiencing dementia may be completely unable to express gratitude or affection. Adults with dementia often lose interest in activities they previous enjoyed and cannot retain new memories. Be sympathetic when dealing with a parent experiencing dementia. If your father lashes out at you for never calling him, he may legitimately be unable to remember your phone conversation yesterday.

Activities and Communication

If you see your parents frequently and they suffer from dementia, try some of these suggestions from UC Davis to help you and your parents cope with this condition. Create a routine of simple, favorite activities, such as listening to music, cooking or watching TV. Use distraction to your advantage: If your parent says or does something that upsets you, change the topic, offer a new activity or suggest going for a walk. If you catch yourself arguing over facts, shift the focus to feelings. Verbally recognizing that your parent feels angry or sad, and offering assurance that you will be there to help, may be enough to defuse a fight.

If your parent doesn't suffer from dementia, you should ask your parent about needs and fears and then listen without judgment, according to a Texas A&M article adapted from University of Missouri-Columbia research entitled "Building Positive Relationships" and prepared by Lou Isbell, a state specialist in child and family development, and gerontology specialist Vicki Schmall. Work through unresolved childhood issues with the help of a mediator, and make it clear that you want to establish a new, healthy relationship.

Empower Yourself

Sometimes, the key to handling difficult parents is to improve your own stress management techniques and coping skills. Join a caregiver support group to see how other people in your position have coped, or visit a therapist or member of the clergy. Pay attention to when and why you get frustrated with your parents’ behavior. Knowing when you might become stressed may give you the heads-up you need to breathe deeply and respond rationally rather than lose your temper.

Seeking Outside Help

Whether you care for your parents on a daily basis or rarely see them, your peace of mind will suffer if you feel you are going at it alone. Carolyn Rosenblatt, a expert on aging, warns in her piece "5 Success Tips With Difficult Aging Parents" that you should not sacrifice your sanity for the sake of pleasing your parents. If a particular responsibility is becoming too frustrating for you, delegate it to a sibling, friend or professional caregiver. Limiting the amount of time you spend “doing” for your parents may help you enjoy other small doses of time together. Also, Barry J. Jacobs, PsyD., in his AARP article "When Aging Parents Won't Receive Help Graciously," says that if your parent is resistant to receiving help, you can frame the idea in an empowering way. For example, hiring someone to cook meals for your bookworm father will give him more free time to read.