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 older adults complain so much even though they have people working hard to make their lives easier? There are several 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?

Some Seniors Are Chronic Complainers

If a senior has always been abrasive, 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 chronic negativity—especially when it comes to 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 at this point. In fact, the physical and mental frustrations that come with aging are likely to intensify an already negative disposition. Primary caregivers for chronic complainers should take this into account when making care decisions. It can be very difficult to stay upbeat around incessant criticism and pessimism.

Causes of New or Increasing Negativity in Older Adults

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

Mood Swings and Behavioral Changes May Indicate UTI

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 UTIs, such as pain, burning and a persistent urge to urinate. But for many older individuals, atypical behavioral symptoms like irritability, angry outbursts 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.

Read: UTIs Cause Unusual Behavioral Symptoms in Elders

Medications Can Affect Mood and Behavior

Many prescription medications can have serious side effects that include personality changes. Psychiatric drugs are one clear example. They are intended to alter a person’s brain chemistry to improve mood and behavior, but the way they work in the body is very complicated. Certain types of these drugs simply may not function well with a senior’s brain chemistry. In some cases, the wrong medication can actually cause their condition to worsen. If your loved one has started a new 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 have negative effects on personality, too. Anti-seizure medications, statins, blood pressure medications and even anti-inflammatories can cause personality and behavioral 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 physician or pharmacist for potential issues.

Read: Polypharmacy in the Elderly: Taking Too Many Medications Can Be Risky

Chronic Pain Can Make Seniors Irritable

Pain can come on suddenly or very gradually over time, and it can be detrimental to a person’s quality of life and functional abilities. In addition to the physical effects, pain can be mentally and emotionally distressing as well. One study published in the journal Pain Research and Management found that chronic pain patients reported higher negative mood states, such as anger-hostility, depression-dejection, fatigue-inertia and tension-anxiety, compared to control subjects who reported no measurable pain. Participants living with chronic pain also exhibited neuromotor deficits in coordination and reaction time. To make matters worse, research has consistently shown that negative mood states can modify pain perception and interfere with the effectiveness of pain management strategies.

If your loved one constantly complains or acts out, make sure they see a physician 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 and everyone around them. Look for obvious signs that they might need a visit to the doctor for some enhanced pain relief. Arthritic 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.

A Senior’s Complaints Might Stem from Boredom

When people are in the workforce, raising children and socializing with friends, they may feel they have to rein in their negative personality traits. Once their responsibilities decrease or they retire, they may feel they have “earned” the right to say exactly what they think and 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 are accompanied by limited mobility, reduced energy and other age-related changes that affect their independence, daily routines and functioning. If they don’t have much else to focus on, seniors may fixate on the negative aspects of their lives or actively seek things to gripe about. Complaining becomes a new “hobby” for many elders as they slow down. Work with your loved one to help them find a hobby or pastime that fits their interests and ability levels and will keep them active, engaged and feeling fulfilled.

Read: Keeping Seniors Busy and Active

Dementia Causes Personality Changes

Memory loss is the classic symptom that most people associate with dementia, but personality changes may be the first to appear in some seniors. Cognitive 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 impairment. Although their forgetfulness may not be apparent, they may become increasingly irritable and more easily flustered due to difficulties with basic tasks and lapses in memory. Brain changes associated with Alzheimer’s disease, frontotemporal dementia and other types of dementia often bring about significant personality changes. If you suspect a senior’s new behavior may be due to cognitive decline, it is important for them to receive a full physical and neurological evaluation.

Read: A Dementia Diagnosis: Bane or Blessing?


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Ways of Dealing With Negative Elderly Parents

In some of the examples above, medical help is needed to balance a loved one’s medications, clear up an infection or manage chronic pain. If dementia is a factor, there are now drugs that can minimize behavioral and personality changes. For many, anti-anxiety medications and even antipsychotic drugs can make a significant difference. Nonpharmaceutical options should be used as a first resort for managing behavioral problems in seniors, but all avenues should be explored to maximize their quality of life.

However, if your loved one has always been negative and impossible to please, you are faced with some hard decisions. You may be trying to do the right thing by providing care to this person despite their flaws, but you must take steps to preserve your own emotional well-being. 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 and establishing boundaries to create an atmosphere where they can be a hands-on caregiver for a difficult senior.

Read: Detaching With Love: Setting Boundaries With Difficult Elderly Parents

In other cases, it is healthier for the caregiver to assume a more hands-off role. Allowing someone else to take over certain aspects of a loved one’s daily care will help you 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.

Sources: Behavior and Personality Changes (https://memory.ucsf.edu/caregiving-support/behavior-personality-changes); Clinical Features to Identify UTI in Nursing Home Residents: A Cohort Study (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2692075/); Cognitive toxicity of drugs used in the elderly (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3181655/); Emotional and neurobehavioural status in chronic pain patients (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3052406/)

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