Mood Changers: 5 Ways to Coax a Smile from Grumpy Elders


Unfortunately, aging tends to give even reasonably cheerful people reasons to feel disgruntled and grumpy. There are many potential sources of a senior's bad mood. For starters, your elders may suffer from physical and emotional pain. Arthritis and other chronic pain can lead to snappish behavior. Losing life-long friends to disease or death is depressing for most people. Memory issues and cognitive glitches are frustrating and even frightening. Additionally, it's not easy switching roles; being forced to give up the parental role and let your adult child make decisions for you.

It's natural for you to want to try to lift your elders' moods, for their sake as well as your own. Sometimes you'll succeed, sometimes you'll fail, but trying rarely hurts. Rarely is the key word, here. Before I offer some suggestions that may help, I'd like to remind you to be sensitive to signs of anxiety, additional pain or fear. You want to cheer people up, not force them to pretend to be happy for your sake.

Tips to Boost a Senior's Mood

  1. Listen and learn.

    We live in a society rife with ageism. Instead of valuing the hard won wisdom of elders, we tend to see their frailties. Older people can't help but be aware of this ageism in everything from television ads to the glances of strangers on the street. It's easy for older people to feel they are either invisible or a burden.

    Often, the most important thing we can do to cheer people up is simply listen to them. Asking pertinent questions helps, too. If you can say, "Tell me what Uncle Jimmy was like when you two were small," you could encourage a wonderful story. You may eventually find that you enjoy tales of the "dirty thirties" or what it was like living on rations during World War II. There are a number of ways you can record these conversations and preserve family memories for generations to come.

  2. Physical reminders of fond memories can bring smiles.

    My uncle liked playing little jokes on people, especially kids. I'd kept some goofy gifts he and my aunt had given my kids when the kids were young. While my uncle was in a nursing home, I brought a few of the objects to him along with pictures of the kids from when they were little. Just seeing the memorable toys, along with pictures of the grinning children, made him smile and cheered up his day.

    Photo albums alone can bring smiles to many elders – even elders with severe memory issues. The more severe the memory issues, the older the pictures should be. This is an activity that can backfire if the pictures are more recent than the retained memories, because frustration could be the end result. However, most people I hear from say that old picture albums from an elder's young adult years, or even their childhood if some are available, can foster a sense of belonging and even joy. They also offer you and your elder something to visit about.

  3. Want to dance?

    I remember one of the best caregivers my dad had in the nursing home. Dad loved music, especially big band music, so I kept him well supplied with CDs. Sandy, his main caregiver, would bounce into Dad's room on occasion, pump up the volume on his CD player and tell him she wanted to dance. She'd then lift Dad up from his chair, grab him and sway back and forth to the music. After a few smart-aleck comments to Dad about his "dancing," Sandy would have him laughing and enjoying himself.

    The combination of physical touch, upbeat music and a smiling caregiver can work magic. I'm not suggesting that this approach is possible in all cases, but keeping the idea in mind could translate into your own version of fun. Uplifting music from an era the elder enjoys, along with good companionship, can often bring a grumpy loved one out of the self-absorbed blues.

  4. Games, puzzles and shared activities.

    Boredom is often the cause of grumpy moods. When people have too much time to think about their lost friends, the activities they can no longer enjoy and their physical pain, they can fall into an emotional slump. Check out the Internet for sites that specialize in games and puzzles for elders or people with dementia.

    Be careful not to demean your loved one by getting something too simple. My mother loved crossword puzzles and could whip through the New York Times books of them that I brought to her. As her memory started to fail, she began to have trouble with the hardest ones. Some well meaning friend brought her one of the large, EASY CROSSWORDS books that you can buy in a grocery store. Mom was irate and I could hardly blame her. She was still capable of getting part way through our local newspaper crossword puzzles and felt this gift was for a child.

    Activities are often about trial and error. Too easy, and participants are insulted. Too hard, they are frustrated. So stay away from anything with a childish theme. Your loved one may have a failing memory, but he or she is still an adult.

  5. Some people aren't happy unless they are unhappy.
    One last note. If your parent was the type who loved to complain when he or she was younger, you likely won't change that tendency now. Some people are happiest if they can talk about how impossible everybody else is and how no one does anything right. In that case, your only option is to change your own attitude. (These 8 tips to improve your own bad mood may help.) Let them complain. Then, detach from their complaints and don't take their attitude personally. Cheerfully agree that "people are terribly inconsiderate." Don't accept blame. Don't argue. Just let the complaints float by, unless, of course there is a reason to be concerned. In this way you can both live your lives as contentedly as possible.

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.

Minding Our Elders

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Ageism is HUGE. There's lots of programming our elders don't understand on television, and with the inaccessibility of face to face banking business contacts, the telephone prompts that even younger people can't understand or keep up with, etc., etc., it's nearly impossible for them to interact in ways they are familiar with.

Ask yourself when was the last time you saw anyone over the age of 85 in a public place other than a doctor's office?

The elderly are the unseen in our society and when they do go out, they are nearly plowed down by people texting and/or talking on the cell phones. Nobody says hello anymore. Lots of talk, no action.

Sad. And it's going to get worse with the 'baby boom' generation coming up.

How sad family no longer wishes to care for their elders and place them in 'assisted living' and/or nursing home care.
Balloon batting while Mom is safe in bed always keeps her laughing but will annoy her if she is already in a bad mood. Brushing her hair makes her purr. Opposite of the advice above, children's books that are gorgeous and have themes of inclusiveness are a mainstay of our activities, as are the Classical Baby programs which you can preview on youTube. She enjoys anything about babies and does not think SHE is a baby.

Andre Rieu and The Celtic Woman concert DVDs are standards...watched repeatedly. Surprisingly, Mom loves the Diana Krall Paris DVD. At first I put on just the popular tunes, but realized she could follow all the jazz instrumental breaks as well.

Gentle hand and leg massage with massage oil. I work on her nails a bit every day, and she enjoys that.
Hi -- does you mom have a medical condition which makes eating difficult? Or is she just a finnicky eater? If it's the latter, maybe some "Ensure" and/or V8 juice as supplements to give her vitamins she's missing. Focus on the foods she loves, and get the healthiest version of them. A few of the foods my mother loves are blueberries, sweet potatoes, pasta, chicken, etc. so I make them in various ways and add in veggies whenever I can in salads & soups. Even though she doesn't eat a lot, at least it's healthy. Hope this helps & good luck . . . Donna