My nursing home patient was fuming as she pointed at a beautiful ceramic planter filled with colorful flowers and festooned with a shiny “Happy Birthday!” balloon.

“My sister is a fool!” she sputtered. “That stupid thing must have cost at least $50—of my money! I called her and told her never to do that again.”

To provide some context, my patient’s sister lives about two hours away from the nursing home and suffers from chronic illnesses that make traveling difficult. Despite these challenges, she still visits at least twice a month, usually toting bags of candy, clothes and toiletries for my patient (who complains bitterly if she’s presented with treats and supplies that are the “wrong” brand).

Inevitably, they argue about the offerings and the visiting sister leaves in tears. If she dares to arrive empty-handed, my patient immediately provides her sister with a meticulously detailed shopping list. Talk about a lose-lose situation…

Now, my patient is an intelligent person who knows this kind of interaction isn’t healthy. We work in therapy on trying to develop healthier, more constructive ways of relating to her sibling, whom she really does love, but progress is hard won. Time after time, well-intentioned visits end in arguments and hurt feelings.

When dealing with seniors who were raised in the shadow of the Great Depression (or other economic hardships), any interaction involving money is likely to be fraught with tension and even anger. Often, people raised in impoverished circumstances have spent a lifetime depriving themselves of luxuries and necessities in order to build a nest egg they hope will protect them from future catastrophes.

When they were young and healthy, striving to keep the metaphoric wolf from the door was a challenge and wresting success from the jaws of possible ruin was the stuff of proud legend. For example, my patient loves to tell the story of how she walked 30 blocks to and from work to save the carfare. She once calculated how many lunches she’d skipped to fund a semester of her sister’s college education. Some of her greatest triumphs in life were built on iron-willed self-denial.

Unfortunately, the focus of this frugality shifts over time. As people age, they fixate more and more on the habit of deprivation rather than building security or the ultimate benefits of their sacrifice. Once a means to an end, saving money (or, more accurately, hoarding it) becomes a goal unto itself.

Happiness takes a back seat to the self-worth derived from the struggle. In a supremely thrifty senior’s mind, the more they do without, the better person they are. However, life goes on, needs increase and prices go up. There’s no way around it: All of us must part with money to live. But to my patient and many other people of her generation, every penny spent feels like a failure.

If you have an aging loved one who fits this pattern, you probably know how hard it can be to do anything nice for them. They aren’t usually touched by your thoughtfulness or impressed by your taste. Instead of appreciation, you probably get a lecture on your spendthrift habits in return. In some cases, they may even refuse to accept (or use) your offerings.

“Everything I do is wrong!” is an oft-heard refrain from caregivers in this situation, and it’s no wonder that many are tempted to just stop trying and walk away. Few experiences are more frustrating than the sense that your time, energy, money and thoughtfulness are doomed to failure. Common responses are to stop trying or to stop loving, neither of which is particularly positive. In such situations, a few tips can be helpful.

  • Try to be empathic. Remind yourself that people do not choose the conditions under which they were raised. Formative experiences and beliefs are deeply ingrained and can be very difficult, if not impossible, to change. Give more weight to the underlying reasons for their abrasiveness than the knee-jerk reaction itself.
  • Include your loved one in purchases. When you buy things for your loved one, try to get them to be a partner in the decision-making process. This lets you factor in current real-world conditions and allows them to experience them first-hand.
    Mom may have been able to buy the perfect wool sweater for $6.00 in the 50s, but prices are now higher. Wool may no longer be the best option. A $20 fleece made of recycled plastic bottles is just as warm and might appeal to Mom’s thriftiness and environmental concerns. Letting a frugal individual explore their options, including prices, materials, brands, etc., will help them feel more confident in their purchases and allow them to enjoy a greater sense of control over their finances.
  • Let them brag and vent. Seniors want to be heard and respected for their strengths, wisdom and accomplishments—as we all do. That often means we must listen to the same stories countless times, but we owe it to our elders to lend an ear, especially if we are seeking their cooperation.
    So, listen to the story about the ideal sweater Mom found back in 1953 at a now-defunct department store, praise her thrift, industry and bargain-hunting skills, mourn the passing of the good old days, and then help her to choose a top from among the clearly-priced sale options in a catalog. She may select the cheapest item and later berate you for “letting her buy that junk,” but it’s also possible that she’ll wear it until it falls apart to continue her tradition of making do.

While a senior’s less-than-gracious attitude can be disheartening when it comes to providing them with care and supplies, keep in mind that you are doing a good and generous thing. Deep down, most people enjoy knowing that someone is thinking about them and looking out for their happiness and wellbeing. Some seniors simply do not know how to respond appropriately to kind gestures. They may lash out in an attempt to disguise their embarrassment over feeling like a burden or a “charity case.” Try not to take their remarks personally and avoid going overboard with gestures to win them over, as this tactic is not likely to succeed. If you keep your efforts reasonable and persevere, their objections may soften slightly or stop completely.

In this case, when I returned to see my patient at the nursing home the following week, the planter was gone—she had given it to one of her aides. The balloon remained, however, and was carefully tethered to her bookshelf. She followed my glance and begrudgingly admitted, “Well, it is kind of cute…”