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Coping With Elderly Parents Who Behave Badly

dealing with aging parents who behave badly

Elderly parents who are difficult to deal with can make caregiving for them much more difficult.

Here’s what I’ve learned.

Coping with elderly parents who behave badly requires empathy, open communication, professional guidance, boundary setting, self-care, and community support.

By approaching the situation with compassion and understanding, you can navigate these challenges while fostering a supportive and loving environment for all involved.

With that said, I do agree of course that sometimes the bad behavior is simply how your elderly parent has always been.

I do acknowledge this and if this is your situation, I would recommend professional counseling to help you through this difficult time.

But in order to know how to cope with a bad behavior, you have to first understand where it’s coming from – what’s causing it?

Types Of Bad Behavior Your Elderly Parent May Be Exhibiting

There are as many reasons for your parents’ unruly behavior as there are snowflakes.

So many singular and combined factors come into play that it would seem it’s impossible to immediately be able to pinpoint exactly what the issue is.

But the truth of the matter is that you DO need to at least try to find out what could be at the root of this change in personality (if it is indeed a change) which is resulting in these disruptive behaviors.


What causes angry outbursts in elderly adults? Well, in addition to the many reasons why any of us would get angry, there are some causes that are specific to older adults.

  • Realizing their own mortality
  • Lack of independence
  • Suffering with aches and pains
  • Medication side effects
  • Dementia or Alzheimer’s
  • Depression

Knowing what may be the cause or causes of their anger may help you to disregard their comments and actions and avoid taking it too personally.

You can certainly love them but hate what they are doing all at the same time.

If what they are doing is due to a disease or medications or if they simply are unable to psychologically cope with how they are aging – then understanding that may help you to empathize with them and essentially give them some slack.

You can read more about why elderly adults get so angry here.

Of course, if you notice that this bad behavior started occurring after they began taking some new medication(s), then please do not hesitate to contact your doctor to let them know what is going on. 

It may be a specific medication or a combination of them that is causing the problem.


For adult children who have sweet loving parents – it’s hard to imagine that they could become combative, either verbally, physically or both.

Of course, if your parents were already that way while you were growing up well – it probably won’t be much different as they get older.

Okay but what how do you cope with an elderly parent who is now combative?

Here are some tips.

Keep The Environment Calm

Keep the environment they live in as calm as possible. This means no loud head banging music, no family members arguing while the television is on and the dog is barking, etc.

Stick To A Schedule

If your parents’ disruptive behavior is due to dementia or Alzheimer’s – one way to help reduce and be prepared for their outbursts is to keep to a schedule for everything.

That means getting up at the same time every day, having meals at the same time, going to get the mail at the same time, etc.

Having a schedule and sticking to it can also help you when it comes time to go to a doctor’s appointment or some other appointment.

For example, if you know that your elderly parent’s mood is best between 10am and 2pm – then you would want to make any appointments during that time.

This will save you and your senior loved one a great deal of angst and agitation.

Now, I do want to also say that if you are dealing with an elderly parent who has dementia or Alzheimer’s – a schedule may help at times – but may not always.

And it may also be true that in the early stages of the disease, having a schedule can be comforting and it may work well. But a month or year later – it may not work at all.

Best to consult with your neurologist for help.

If Possible – Give Them The Option To Make The Decision

Put yourself in their shoes before you ask them to do something or worse, try to make them do something.

For example, if they are napping in their favorite chair and you want them to come to dinner (because you are trying to stick to a schedule) and you wake them up and try to talk them into coming to dinner or worse, start helping them up from their chair – well – if they do not want to eat at that moment – they can become angry, agitated and yes, combative.

Anyone who is sleeping and is awoken may easily react this way. Especially if they are having trouble sleeping in the first place (which many older adults do).

So, if possible, give them the option to make the decision whether or not they want to come to eat dinner.

Yes, I understand this requires patience on your part and also a greater part of your time.

It’s okay (and highly encouraged) to ask for help.

No caregiver can or should do the work alone to care for an elderly loved one – especially if they are abusive in any way.


In my experience working for many years with neurologically impaired adults is that one of the first things to alter as we all grow older and older is judgment and reasoning.

…as people age, their opportunities to recover or compensate for poor-quality judgments and decisions diminish.

National Center for Biotechnology Information

There are many factors that contribute to this:

  • stubborness
  • biases
  • depression
  • dementia or Alzheimer’s
  • medications

Whatever the cause(s) may be – as a caregiver – you still have to deal with the end result which is trying to help someone who is irrational.

Their irrationality can show itself in several ways. Here are some examples:


Paranoid thoughts are more common than you think in older adults.

Trying to explain to your elderly mother that no, there is no one else in the home or the mailman is not reading his/her mail or that the pharmacist is not switching their medication can be exhausting and frankly, futile in many instances.

So, instead of trying to convince her that she is wrong – try to acknowledge her worries (yes, I know this means lying) and redirect her thinking to another topic or activity.


My late husband suffered from severe anxiety and I can tell you from very personal experience that it can be debilitating – especially if it’s not acknowledged by the person with anxiety and if they are not taking medication to help control it.

My mother also suffered from anxiety in her later years but refused to admit it and of course, refused any medication for it.

As a result – every decision became a chore, every new event in the day (i.e. going out to lunch instead of eating in) became an emotional roller coaster of yelling and crying.

Our solution was to give her as much control as possible over making decisions (while of course helping her through it).

We did our best to respect her wishes to do what she wanted to do and not force her into any activities or tasks that she did not want to do.

Her diagnosis of Pulmonary Fibrosis (late stage) got her accepted into hospice.

They provided us with morphine, which she took when her breathing became difficult.

The small doses of morphine that we gave her helped her anxiety so very much!


Another extremely common example of irrational behavior in seniors is refusals to do something or to stop doing something.

This can be due to a sense of losing control over their life.

Some examples are:

  • refusing to stop driving even if they’ve been in an accident or two due to their error
  • refusal to take certain medications
  • refusal to stop eating certain foods that are contributing to their poor health
  • refusal to use a cane or walker even if they have already fallen once or twice or more
  • refusing to shower or bathe

I dealt with this with my own mother and I have a few friends who are dealing with this now with their elderly parents and it can be (as you probably know) extremely frustrating.

I’m sorry to say there really is no magic pill or anything that you can do to combat this in your senior loved one.

But – what YOU can do to cope with this situation is to simply “let it go”.

At the end of the day – it’s THEIR decision, it’s THEIR life. If they choose to refuse what is clearly a better and/or safer option for them – there’s not much you can do.

EXCEPT – of course if your elderly parent is suffering from dementia or Alzheimer’s they are not in full control of their decision making process.

So, how do you cope / deal with this?

The best advice I can give you is to accept the fact that you cannot control them and also, be prepared to be a bit sneaky and to lie to them – for their benefit.

You can of course speak calmly to them about what they SHOULD be doing and express your thoughts on WHY they should be doing it.

Bring it up several times, without confrontation and what this will hopefully do is to plant a seed in their head.

They may mull it over and at some point – come to the conclusion that you are correct (without actually tell you that you are of course!).

If you are a parent with grown children who ignore you, read our article with tips for reuniting.

How Do You Deal With Difficult Elderly Parents?

Dealing with difficult elderly parents is something I know of from not only first hand experience, but from working with thousands of elderly patients and their families as an Occupational Therapist.

From all of these experiences I can give you the following tips on how manage difficult parents.

  • Know that you are not being punished for anything. None of this is your fault nor your “just desserts”. It just simply is.
  • Seek help and don’t wait until you are just about to crack from the stress and caregiver fatigue. Use an online counselor, online support groups, talk to your friends who may also be in the same situation, etc.
  • Share your experiences with others and don’t be shy. Counselor Amy Lewis Bear says “Share your frustration with family and other confidants such as doctors, religious leaders, and friends and engage their help. Caregivers are at risk for social isolation, anxiety and depression, even more so when caring for an abusive parent. They need to be heard and taken seriously.”
  • Understand that your elderly parents are who they are (and have always been). We all are. You will not and cannot change them – so stop expecting that to happen. Instead use the techniques I mentioned above to help you to deal with them when they behave badly.
  • Avoid arguments as much as you can. It only escalates the problem and ends up solving nothing. Again, online counseling may help as well as caregiver support groups.
  • Be good to yourself. As a caregiver, it is imperative that you take care of yourself first. As they tell us when we board an airplane, “the oxygen mask goes on YOU first” … so that you can then help your elderly loved ones.

For spiritual comfort, read our article, Bible Verses For Caregivers (Scriptures For Encouragement).

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