How to Cope with a Senior’s Complaining and Negativity

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You took your mom to the doctor, and she’s upset with you because the appointment took too long. You helped Dad with the yardwork, but he’s annoyed that you didn’t mow the grass in the right pattern. Why do elders complain so much even though they have people working hard to make their lives easier? There are a number of potential causes for this behavior, and one simple question can help you get to the bottom of things: Has this person always been negative and prone to complaining, or is this a new occurrence?

Complaining Can Be Ingrained

If a senior has always been the bickering type, complaining may be the only way they know how to communicate. It is likely that they are not even aware of how their attitude affects others. No, their continued negative take on life—especially the things you go out of your way to do for them—is not acceptable. However, it’s highly unlikely that you’ll be able to change their personality. In fact, the physical and mental frustrations that come with aging are likely to intensify an already negative disposition. It’s important to take this into account if you are their primary caregiver and already struggling to stay upbeat around their pessimism.

New-Found Sources of Negativity

Conversely, for some seniors, a negative mindset or constant complaining is a new occurrence. If your mother was always sweet, almost timid, but now she’s implacable, or your husband was jolly and supportive but he’s become controlling and angry, it is a red flag. Fortunately, new personality changes are easier to address, and many can be remedied.

Elders Exhibit Different Symptoms of Infection

A urinary tract infection (UTI) can have a sudden and significant impact on a senior’s demeanor. Most people are aware of the physical symptoms of a UTI, such as pain, burning and a persistent urge to urinate. But for many older individuals, behavioral symptoms like irritability and confusion are the only indicators of an infection. This is one of the first things that caregivers should check for if a loved one experiences sudden and unusual changes in behavior.

Medications Can Cause Personality Changes

Many prescription medications can have serious side effects that include personality changes. Psychiatric drugs are one clear example. They’re intended to alter a person’s brain chemistry to improve moods and behavior, but the way they work in the body is very complicated. Certain types of these drugs simply do not function well with a person’s brain chemistry. In some cases, the wrong medication can actually cause their condition to worsen. If your loved one has started an antidepressant or another type of psychiatric medication, don’t just assume things will get better. Some of these drugs take several weeks to reach their full effect, whether it is positive or negative. Communicate with your loved one’s doctor about any changes in mood and behavior to ensure the new medication and dosage are still appropriate for their condition.

Other types of medications can also have negative effects on personality. Anti-seizure medications, statins, blood pressure medications and even anti-inflammatories can cause personality changes in some people. Drug interactions can also be problematic, so if your loved one takes several medications, the combination should be double checked by a pharmacist for potential issues.

Pain Can Make Anyone Crabby

If your loved one was doing well but suddenly changes into an irritable complainer, make sure they see the doctor to check for painful changes in their health. Many elders “don’t want to complain,” so they refuse to go to the doctor. Ironically, they often continue to gripe to their family members all day long. The complaints might be about the pain itself, or they may express their frustration and discomfort by criticizing everything around them. Look for obvious signs that they might need a visit to the doctor for some enhanced pain relief. Joint pain is a common source of discomfort for older individuals, and indications include changes in gait (e.g. limping, moving more slowly, walking less), problems with dexterity, or fixating on a certain joint or area of the body.

Complaints Might Stem from Entitlement or Boredom

When people are in the workforce, raising children and socializing with friends, they may feel they have to rein in their negative side. Once their responsibilities decrease or they retire, they may feel they’ve “earned” the right to say exactly what they feel. And much of what they feel could be negative if they are bored or no longer have a sense of purpose. These emotions are often compounded when they’re accompanied by limited mobility, reduced energy and other age-related changes that affect their daily life. Work with your loved one to help them find a hobby or pastime that will keep them active, engaged and feeling fulfilled.

Dementia May Be to Blame

Memory impairment is the classic symptom that most people associate with dementia, but personality changes may be the first to appear in some seniors. Memory problems can go unnoticed by family and friends for quite some time if a loved one is particularly good at compensating for or covering up their shortcomings. Although their forgetfulness may not be apparent, they may be increasingly irritable and easily flustered due to difficulties with basic tasks and lapses in memory. Alzheimer’s disease, Pick’s disease and other dementias often bring about significant personality changes. If you suspect a senior’s new behavior may be due to dementia, it’s important for them to receive a full physical and neurological evaluation.

What Can You Do About an Elder’s Non-Stop Complaining?

In some of the examples above, medical help is needed to help balance a loved one’s medications, clear up an infection or control chronic pain. If dementia is a factor, there are now drugs that can help minimize behavioral and personality changes. For many, anti-anxiety medications and even anti-psychotics can make a significant difference. All avenues should be explored.

However, if your loved one has always been negative and impossible to please, you are faced with some hard choices. You may be trying to do the right thing by providing care to this person in spite of their flaws, but you must take steps to ensure your own emotional wellbeing. Many people will never see change in an elder who is set in their ways. Sometimes, with counseling and help, family members can learn techniques like detachment to create an atmosphere where they can be a hands-on caregiver.

In other cases, it is healthier for the caregiver to assume a more hands-off role. Allow someone else to take over certain aspects of their daily care so that you can safeguard your mental and physical health. This could be another family member, a paid in-home caregiver or a senior living facility. In this way you can minimize exposure to your loved one’s negativity and ensure they are receiving the care they need.

Carol Bradley Bursack

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Over the span of two decades, author, columnist, consultant and speaker Carol Bradley Bursack cared for a neighbor and six elderly family members. Her experiences inspired her to pen, "Minding Our Elders: Caregivers Share Their Personal Stories," a portable support group book for caregivers.

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55 Comments

My Mom feels as if I discount her opinion or take everyone else's side against her. I don't believe there are 2 "sides". When she makes a complaint or misunderstands a situation, I plainly tell her the truth. Because her memory is failing, she practically accuses me of lying. She was always a "bickerer" especially with my Dad, to whom she behaved very badly for as long as I can remember, until he became ill. I try to put aside my resentment( of how my loyalty to her diminished my relationship with my Dad.) Now, when she finds fault with me or constantly complains, it puts me on edge because her behavior to me is very like she was with my Dad, but with the added baggage of my being "too fat", too "wasteful", too "contrary" too "crazy over cleanliness and bathing" or whatever "flavor of the day" complaint it is. I know she is frustrated by her diminished abilities both physical and cognitive, but truthfully, I am both hurt and angry...There is no joy in caring for her as it is stirring up much of the angst of my pre-teen and teenage years when I felt fat, ugly and lived in a house of turmoil. It took a long time to unlearn my self hatred and at 57 years old, I am snapped right back. My husband has the grace to be understanding, but then he does not have the same emotional response as I. She even makes sly, passively critical remarks about him. We both try to please her, but she is a very difficult 91 year old. I think I need a caregiver's support group.
I had to have a councilor tell me my mother was verbally abusing me! It changed so slowly that I didn't realize it happened. Now when she trys to push my buttons, I deflect her comments with a joke or ignore her. I tell her she had five minutes a day to complain, and that she's used them all up!!
I feel like punching someone. Particularly the siblings who not only ignore my mother's financial deficiencies and continue to take. I hear nothing but complaints about them when when we talk but she is friendly and welcoming whenever they come around. I get attitude and responsibility. There is no talking to them. I just feel so frustrated.