Coping With an Elderly Loved One’s Distorted Sense of Time


A friend recently told us a story about her mother’s latest visit. Her mom didn’t drive, so she planned to come by train. While not thrilled by this plan, there were few realistic alternatives, so our friend reluctantly agreed and promised to pick her up at the station. She arrived 10 minutes before the train was due, only to find her mother shivering on the windy platform, clutching her suitcase. She’d taken an earlier train and arrived at the station well ahead of schedule. The inevitable question, “Why didn’t you call?” was met with protests that she was perfectly fine and didn’t want to disturb her daughter. Our friend’s initial response was guilt, quickly followed by irritation, and then more guilt.

This story is not unusual. As we age, our capacity to judge time accurately diminishes. Most people begin to perceive time as passing more swiftly than it actually is. This tendency is magnified significantly in those who are suffering from Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. However, the behavior isn’t limited to people with cognitive impairments. Many seniors become hyper-aware of how time is precious and fleeting. They don’t want to risk “missing” anything, so even the most laid-back elders often evolve into early birds.

Other age-related factors also contribute to this shift in subtle ways. Deteriorating vision can lead one to avoid driving at night or during rush hour traffic. Incontinence issues can cause unexpected delays or pit-stops and result in tardiness. For some family members and friends, these behaviors are considered harmless quirks, but for a primary caregiver, these quirks can be a source of significant stress.

When you’re in charge of a loved one’s transportation and your own schedule is already overbooked, Dad’s insistence on arriving for his doctor’s appointments 30 minutes early may grate on your nerves (especially if the doctor is notorious for running late). A dozen phone calls to remind you of the appointment beforehand and requests that you hurry up while en route may generate tension. The same goes for frequent, “What time is it getting to be?” queries while you sit in the waiting room, powerless to move things along.

It’s hard not to resent your loved one for the way they manage their time (and yours). So, what can caregivers do? Three steps may help you both reach some sort of compromise.

Why Do So Many Seniors Have the Need for Speed?

First, try to determine whether your loved one’s “need for speed” is motivated by something other than punctuality. You may discover that Mom’s fear of getting home late stems from anxiety over her dog’s wellbeing or that Dad’s insistence on dining early is rooted in his need to save a few dollars when eating out. Addressing underlying issues will help you better understand the things that are important to your loved one and how they affect their schedule (and yours). With this knowledge, you may also be able to help them devise solutions to minimize their concerns and loosen their grip on your itinerary.

Set a Schedule for Your Loved One

Set a realistic time schedule, review it as needed and stick to it. If you know from experience that it takes Mom at least 10 minutes to put on her coat and shoes, lock the door, put her keys in her purse and get in the car, factor that and any other quirks into the schedule for outings. It may seem like overkill, but incorporating these factors into your schedule will help you realistically allocate time without seriously over- or underestimating.

The second part of this plan is to explain the schedule to your loved one so that they trust you have accounted for everything and won’t make them late. For example, tell Mom, “Your appointment is at 10:00 a.m. It takes 10 minutes to get out of the house and 15 minutes to drive there, so I’ll be at your place at 9:20. We’ll have plenty of time to get a parking space and hit the bathroom before the doctor calls you back.” Sometimes this simple reassurance can help a senior calm down and stop obsessing over punctuality.

Unforeseen circumstances are bound to arise, but try your best to incorporate some degree of flexibility into your schedule. This way you will already be prepared, and you won’t have to deviate significantly from the plan. With sufficient repetition, your loved one will realize that you both will get where you need to be when you need to be there.

Time Is Valuable in Many Different Ways

Finally, take a step back and consider your own attitudes regarding time. Seemingly wasted time spent in a waiting room or driving can be a valuable opportunity for a one-on-one chat with your loved one. Waiting room time can also give you the chance to catch up on your reading, write out upcoming birthday or holiday cards, plan next week’s meals and shopping list, or text with a friend you haven’t seen recently. While it isn’t as ideal as taking a relaxing bath or a nap, this time can also be a brief moment for you to collect yourself and unplug from caregiving. It’s all about how you approach the situation and decide to make the most of it. A bit of reframing on your part can go a long way toward making a frustrating situation where your parent requires a great deal of your time much more tolerable.

Husband and wife Mary A. Languirand, PhD, and Robert Bornstein, PhD, are experts in elder care. They co-authored “When Someone You Love Needs Nursing Home, Assisted Living, or In-Home Care.”

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I am getting to an age where I may need some help at some point in my alarmingly not too distant future. It's a frightening prospect, made more so by the problems and attitudes I see reflected in the daily posts and resentments I read on this site. The last thing I want is to ever depend on my children for anything and I would certainly never expect them to empty their bank account to take care of me. The thought of living with them horrifies me as well even though I love them dearly. Even now, I sometimes get that "tone of voice" from one of them who doesn't agree with a decision or a comment I've made. So, from a nearly senior, I have a few comments:

First, if your parents are way too early now, they've probably always been too early. Or they get to the doctor's office in time and find out all of the other patients came early and lined up in front of them, so they're nervous about taking up your time or, as the article said, getting home for a valid reason. If you don't have the time or don't want to be involved, arrange for the Handicar or whatever service you have in your community that transports seniors free of charge, even for grocery shopping.

Second, don't take your parents into your home if they need extreme care or if you can't afford it, or if you don't have the time and patience and can't afford caregivers to come in and assist, or you just don't feel that you want to take on the burden. Once you take them in, it only gets worse and it's harder to move them back out or to make an alternative decision. If they don't have funds, the state will step in. If they do have funds, help them find the best way to utilize them for the most savings. It's a scary world out there and so much has changed since they were young. You too will face this dilemma one day so treat as you would like to be treated and try to remember the sacrifices they made for you when you are deciding their future. No one will give you a medal for allowing guilt to make your choices and feeling building resentments is like eating glass and waiting for the other person to die.

Third, you think you're frustrated and angry, look at it from the opposite view. They have lost driving privileges, feel trapped and dependent when they've been independent all their lives, beset by dozens of old-age conditions. I can only imagine what a bitter pill that is. How do you think they feel having to depend on you for everything, being treated like children which, unfortunately, many of them become and the more you treat them like children, the more like children they become -- just as you did when you were small.

Last, don't take them in and then expect your siblings to step up. Make sure the financial and caretaking agreements are in place before you commit yourself. If your siblings aren't willing to take the time, be sure and set up an account they can contribute to monthly to hire caregivers or errand runners so you don't feel pinned against a wall with no options. And don't step on their dignity. Consult them as equals whenever possible, not with that voice that tells them all of the power is yours. They probably already know that and are humiliated by it.
This is a forum where we, the caregivers can come to vent, share stories and support each other. Certainly we know we will be in this situation someday. Certainly we are aware of our elder loved ones difficulties and that is why we are taking care of them. We do not need to be chastised. It is just as sad and frightening to us to watch helplessly as they become more diminished. It is not at all easy. When I visit this site I receive the encouragement that I am not alone. That is the purpose.
Dear Lynstudio, I totally agree with you on this. I never really knew how hard it was going to be taking care of my Dad with dementia. But when he lived with me for awhile, only then, did I realize the difficulty. But even so, I decided to do ALL that I possibly could. But the only other alternative when I could no longer do it, and he could no longer tolerate living with us, was assisted living. Which he finally started to enjoy being with others like himself. But HERE, is where I really received the most support. I was never judged in my decisions, only supported here. Good luck and hugs to all here who have decided with much difficulty and self sacrafice, to take in their loved ones, and have done the best they could, until they no longer could. May receive the encouragement and support you need on this site.