My Father Used to Be So Kind, But Now He's Using Lots of Profanity. How Do I Handle Him?

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Q: My normally loving but now slightly demented father is suddenly using the worst possible profanity. How should I handle it?

A: When I was taking care of my elderly parents (both with early Alzheimer's not properly diagnosed for over a year), no one warned me that inhibitions gradually fade and that Alzheimer's patients often use profanity.

At first it actually didn't bother me that much, as I was used to my father's lifelong use of swear words to punctuate most of his sentences! In fact when I was a kid, I made a ton of money at Lent when he'd swear he'd stop swearing--and then pay me a dime for each infraction. And oh, if I only had a nickel for every time Mom shook her finger scolding him with, "Honey, now stop that swearing!"

What I was not used to however (and it sounds like this is what's happening in your case) was my father's use of the "F" word, as he had never used that one before--my mother would have slapped him silly. But now when he'd get upset over the simplest thing, I was suddenly the target and: "nothing but a f-ing whore"… "I had never done a f-ing thing for him"… and… oh yeah… "all I wanted was his f-ing money"!

I know how you are feeling, as it is so painful to have our once-adoring fathers say such horrible things to us. As I cried and pleaded with my father to stop each time, my now demented mother shook her furious finger from her hospital bed in the family room with, "Honey, now, you just stop that foul language, and I mean it. Right now!"

It took some time to understand that my father's negative behavior patterns were becoming intermittently distorted with the onset of dementia, because he'd be so normal and nice in-between these episodes. Like most people new to coping with dementia, I just chalked it all up to stress, illness and old age.

Finally, here's what helped me: Eventually I developed what I now call the "Jacqueline Marcell Emotional Shield," which I want to empower you with. Basically, it's consciously striving to become desensitized to bad words so they don't mean anything except that there's frustration to try to eliminate or reduce.

By speaking calmly with non-threatening body language, while validating that you understand how upset your father is, you can usually de-escalate the situation. Don't get caught up with trying to make sense of angry outbursts, illogical or irrational statements, argue the facts, or debate infuriating accusations. As soon as you can eliminate your need for logic and reason, it will be much easier to cope.

I finally got so good at detaching that no matter what despicable things my father said to me, they'd just bounce right off. I'd say, "I'm sorry you're so upset--what can I do to make you feel better?" And when the answer was, "You can get the hell out of my GD house you f-ing bitch, that's what you can do!" it became a bit more challenging to come up with creative solutions!

Sometimes I could get my father off his swearing tirades by using "Distraction." Redirecting him to something he was interested in, like a tornado on the Weather Channel. I also used "Reminiscence," bringing up happy times from the old days while capitalizing on his long-term memory. I even resorted to a little "Bribery," offering his favorite vanilla ice cream for dessert if he'd calm down.

And if none of that worked, I just backed off, disappeared, and waited for it to blow over. That's when the mystery of intermittent dementia became clear, because oftentimes my father had no recollection whatsoever of these episodes, later saying emphatically, "I never said any such a thing!"

It was so "funny" because suddenly Mom's memory would be perfect and she'd repeat whatever he'd said verbatim! She'd scowl at him and shake her furious finger saying, "Well, you most certainly did too, honey. You said she was just a #@&*#$!"

And when all else fails, you just have to laugh!

Jacqueline Marcell is a former television executive who was so compelled by caring for her elderly parents (both with early Alzheimer's not diagnosed for over a year) she wrote "Elder Rage." She is also an international speaker on elder care and host of the popular Internet radio program "Coping With Caregiving."

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24 Comments

I am caregiver of my elderly father who uses racially charged language. He chooses not to use this hate-language in social settings. For example, he does not choose to use tis language in the presence of others at the senior retirement home where he lives. He is calculated about when and where he uses the foul hate-speech. He hides this nastiness from the other residents and from the staff members at the senior home. I'm quite sure they would be aghast to learn that he is capable of such nastiness. He manages to demonstrate 'charm' and seeming empathy in these social settings. However, when he's not in this type of setting, he scopes out opportunities to use this language in my presence. I usually get a sense when he is about to launch the n-word. I watch him with much more awareness now. I have learned not to drop my guard. He has 'tells'. And, I've gotten wise to them. His methodology is cowardly. His approach resembles a toddler boy seeking out an inappropriate place to hide and urinate, just for the fun of it.

He understands, very clearly, that I am offended by hate-speech. I have, on numerous occasions, asked him to not use the language. He waits until there is no one else in his proximity, but me, then fires off the n-word in description of others. The n-word is then shortly followed by additional judging and critical remarks about the person's hair texture and hair style, etc. If his target is a woman, he will, then, add offensive stereotyping remarks about her anatomy.

He speaks this way as if he were talking about the weather. This unconscionable behavior is not attributable to cognitive decline...and, even then, it wouldn't be something I would give him a pass for.

This man has used this ignorant, offensive, bigoted language since I can remember. I was ashamed of him for it in my growing years ...I am even more ashamed of him now, considering the huge amount of resources -physical, emotional, financial- that we have invested, and that has been steered to him and away from my own immediate families limited budget. It's a very disappointing to come to a place of understanding that a parent can be this disrespectful and ungrateful of their adult child's efforts to advocate for them.

I'm fed up with bigoted, elderly people getting a 'pass' for using racial slurs -'any' bigoted, hate-centric language. That 'generation' is not an excuse to be cruel and void of humanity. I can't fathom what in the world has people responding to this kind of trash-mouth stupidity with, "Well...It's just their generation". Good God...Grow a back bone, society, and tell your elderly family member, or any other old coot, that he/she best be careful -real careful...Cuz one day you're going to say 'that word' in the wrong place, at the wrong time...and I'm not going to be able to defend/protect you. It's called 'consequences' for your bad choices.

My husband and I have treated him to dinner out to give him a change of scenery from the chefs menu at his senior home -3 meals a day, 'served' to him by wait staff, but, my father will only eat lots of beef, pork, starches, and sweets. He does not have funds for treating himself to dinner. Our intention and hope has been to facilitate connection and a quality of time together as a family. The last two times he has been treated to a meal, by me or by me and my husband, he has gone out of his way to display this shameful behavior...much like that of a baboon displaying his back side.

I'm not commenting because I am seeking suggestions on how I might deal with his behavior. I know what I should do. He has one, last opportunity to choose to behave in a decent manner. If he want to use every four-letter word in his vernacular, as a place holder for his customary trash-mouth, hate-speech while we are dining out; I will be agreeable to give him a pass for 'that'.

I am implementing the 3 strikes method of teaching appropriate behavior. One more time, you call someone that word -while we are going out of our way to make room in our very tight budget to treat you to you a meal out with an expectation that you can manage to behave like a person who doesn't judge others by the color of their skin- and you're out. You are not too old and ailing to know 'exactly' what kind of damage you're doing. Remember, Dad....There are consequences for your choices.
I only wish my Dad would only drop "F" bombs and say cuss words. He is 83 years old born and raised in So. Arkansas. He uses the "N" word. I have apologized over and over to the aids/nurses/staff. Regardless of how much training these people have, yelling the "N" word at the top of his lungs takes its toll on the staff but I have no way to stop him from saying it. So I'm now looking for nHome # 4 and I feel its because of this behavior and language.
I had this uncle who used profanity from the time he woke up in the morning until the time he went to sleep at night. Everything was god damn this or god damn that. He only lived 69 years, and he was a great person to have around in spite of the profanity. He also did not live in an assisted living facility; he owned and operated a printing business for a good long time. He had this stuffed toy poodle dog with a bow in its hair, and when I would come to visit for a weekend, I would request that he hand the dog over to me because I would not go to sleep unless I had that dog.