We get it, sometimes you can be a little surprised at the behavior of your senior parents. You thought they would soften with old age, but if anything, they’ve gotten angrier or meaner as the years have gone by.
What is causing this anger in them? Is this a behavior you are seeing on a regular basis?
Why DO old people get mean?
The elderly may get angry for several reasons. Among these are:
- Realizing their own mortality
- Life changes
- Feelings of helplessness and frustration
- Loneliness and isolation
- Physical health problems
- Communication problems
- Medication side effects
- Dementia or Alzheimer’s disease
- Mental health problems
You may notice that your parent gets upset over little things or nothing at all. The first step family members must take is to try to understand what the cause(s) may be and seeking professional help if needed, can help you to get through this time.
While it can be difficult for family members to be the target of emotional outbursts or abusive behavior, it can help you avoid taking it too personally if you can step into their shoes.
It’s important for family caregivers to try to see what may be driving the aggressive behavior in their aging parent.
When negative emotions last for a long time and are maintained even when no longer appropriate, disorders such as chronic depression or anxiety ensue.National Library of Medicine
Of course, there could certainly be a variety of reasons that are causing mood changes in your senior loved ones. And there may not be any specific warning sign to let you know that an angry outburst is about to happen.
Let’s take a deeper look into a few sources of what may be causing these senior outbursts.
Realizing Their Own Mortality
It’s never easy to admit you’re not invincible and won’t be around forever. Your senior parent may have denied their mortality to a point, but as the years have caught up with them, that’s getting harder to do.
This can induce anxiety and/or depression that makes them more likely to lash out at you and others.
Sometimes the death of a close friend, family member or even a pet can bring out fears and frustrations surrounding their own mortality.
Speaking with a trained counselor can be an important thing to do to help your elderly parent learn how to begin dealing with the issue of their own mortality.
Major life changes, such as retirement, the death of a loved one, or moving to a new place, can also trigger anger in the elderly.
I have a friend who does not do well with change. Any kind of change. My late husband also had a difficult time with change. But the one thing that is an absolute guarantee in our lives is that there will be change!
For seniors who have never dealt well with changes in their life, the major changes that come with growing older can be frightening and devastating.
It’s no wonder they would lash out!
Feelings of Helplessness and Frustration
As people age, they may experience a loss of independence and control over their lives. This can lead to feelings of helplessness and frustration, which can in turn lead to anger.
Sometimes elderly individuals have problems dressing themselves, cooking, or doing other activities throughout their day, so they need more help.
This is not only frustrating, it can be a source of embarrassment as well.
In my dad’s case, he had to surrender his driver’s license, which bothered him immensely. He was still talking about it almost right up until the day he passed away, about 15 months later.
Although it may be difficult for older people to accept, a professional caregiver may be the best thing for someone who has problems with daily tasks. And the respite care could give family caregivers a break from the difficulties of caring for an older parent.
Loneliness and Isolation
Loneliness and isolation can significantly impact the mental and emotional health of elderly individuals, potentially leading to behaviors that may be perceived as mean or angry.
- Emotional Distress: Loneliness can lead to feelings of sadness and depression. These negative emotions can manifest as irritability or anger towards others, not necessarily because the person is inherently mean, but because they’re in emotional pain.
- Lack of Social Interaction: Humans are social beings. Regular social interactions help us maintain our emotional balance and perspective. When isolated, elderly people might lack the outlets to express their feelings and frustrations healthily, which can result in them lashing out.
- Cognitive Decline: Research has shown a link between social isolation and cognitive decline. Cognitive decline can lead to confusion, frustration, and changes in personality, including increased irritability or perceived meanness.
- Sense of Worthlessness: Prolonged loneliness can lead to feelings of worthlessness or being a burden, which can foster resentment and anger. This may cause elderly individuals to push others away, further isolating themselves.
- Fear and Anxiety: Isolation can exacerbate fears and anxieties, such as fear of death or declining health. These fears can lead to heightened stress levels, which can manifest as anger or hostility.
- Physical Health Issues: Loneliness and social isolation can lead to neglect of physical health, which can result in discomfort or chronic pain. Pain and discomfort can increase irritability.
To mitigate these effects, it’s important to maintain regular social contact with elderly relatives or friends, involve them in activities they enjoy, and encourage them to stay connected with their community.
Physical Health Problems
Getting older can be painful and filled with health problems. Your senior parent’s joints, muscles, and bones aren’t as flexible as they used to be. In all probability, they likely don’t wake up without feeling sore. Then, as the day goes on, their pain probably increases.
This is especially true if they are dealing with complications from pressure ulcers – which can be very painful.
I know my mom suffered with chronic pain from arthritis in her hips and hands for the last years of her life. She couldn’t sleep well because of it and it made activities painful and, thus, less enjoyable.
In addition to these types of muscle and joint pain, many older adults often have to deal with issues such as a urinary tract infection.
Grinning and bearing it through pain day after day and dealing with poor health can wear on anybody, making them cranky.
The inability to effectively communicate can be a significant source of frustration for elderly individuals, potentially resulting in perceived meanness or anger.
This difficulty can stem from age-related cognitive decline, including conditions like dementia or Alzheimer’s disease, which can impair an individual’s ability to articulate thoughts and needs clearly.
Similarly, hearing loss—a common issue among the elderly—can hinder communication, leading to misunderstandings and feelings of exclusion.
Even the natural slowing of speech and thought processes with age can make it more challenging to keep up with conversations, particularly in group settings.
This inability to communicate effectively can lead to feelings of isolation, frustration, and helplessness, which can, in turn, manifest as anger or irritability.
Thus, what is perceived as ‘meanness’ might indeed be an expression of the individual’s struggle to connect with those around them.
Medication Side Effects
In some instances, your elderly parent’s behavior may not necessarily be of their own doing. One example of that is if they’re on a host of medications.
Some medications can have side effects that can cause personality changes, mood and/or behavioral changes ,which will make your mom or dad not who they usually are.
Any sudden changes in a senior’s behavior are a cause for concern. It may point to an adverse reaction to a medication or an underlying medical issue, such as a urinary tract infection (UTI), unmanaged pain or poor sleep.Agingcare.com
It’s a good idea to report these types of changes and any other reactions you may notice as a result of medications to your physician. Oftentimes, elderly people will not question their doctors, so a family member may have to.
Substance abuse, including alcohol and drug misuse, can significantly contribute to behavioral changes in elderly individuals, potentially leading to what may be perceived as mean or angry behavior.
Alcohol and prescription drug abuse affects up to 17% of adults over the age of 60 per the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA). Due to insufficient knowledge, limited research data, and hurried office visits, health care providers often overlook signs of substance abuse among the elderly. This is made worse by the fact that the elderly often have medical or behavioral disorders that mimic symptoms of substance abuse, such as depression, diabetes, or dementia.addictioncenter.com
This can occur because substance abuse alters brain chemistry, affecting mood regulation and impulse control, which can lead to irritability and aggression.
Furthermore, substance abuse can exacerbate underlying health conditions, leading to discomfort or pain that may increase irritability. It may also impair cognitive functions, leading to confusion and frustration, which can manifest as anger.
Additionally, the negative social and personal consequences of substance abuse, such as damaged relationships or feelings of guilt and shame, can lead to emotional distress, further contributing to mood swings and negative behaviors.
Therefore, when substance abuse is involved, an elderly person’s mean or angry behavior may be a symptom of a larger, more complex issue that requires professional intervention.
Dementia or Alzheimer’s
Another situation in which your senior parent’s behavior may gradually change – but not of their own volition – is due to cognitive impairment from the onset of dementia or Alzheimer’s.
Cognitive conditions such as these can cause memory loss, judgement and reasoning.
In fact, the Alzheimer’s Association says, “Aggressive behaviors may be verbal or physical. They can occur suddenly, with no apparent reason, or result from a frustrating situation. While aggression can be hard to cope with, understanding that the person with Alzheimer’s or dementia is not acting this way on purpose can help.”
Your parent may find themselves getting upset with themselves for not being able to remember things that once came easily to them. Then they take that out on others.
They may not even remember who you are each time you talk, thus treating you in ways they don’t intend.
The Alzheimer’s Association recommends checking to be sure to check into the physical, environmental, and communication factors that can contribute to anger:
- Physical pain or discomfort – are they tired, thirsty, hungry, have an infection they can’t communicate (it is common to have undiagnosed urinary tract or other infections, according to the Association).
- Environment – loud noises, repetitive noises, or clutter can make someone frustrated, which they may express as anger or aggression. They may also feel unsafe if they aren’t sure of where they are or who is with them.
- Communication – be sure to keep stories and instructions simple. Too many choices, complicated questions or repeatedly correcting someone with a cognitive condition can result in anger. Choose your battles – it doesn’t matter if Aunt Sally had a parakeet but your mom says she had a Pekinese.
Mental Health Problems
Unfortunately, depression and mental illness is more common in seniors that we’d like to think.
According to WebMD, “Late-life depression affects about 6 million Americans ages 65 and older. But only 10% receive treatment for depression.”
We also know that depression affects older adults differently. For one thing, depression may happen in conjunction with a disability or an illness.
The US National Library of Medicine’s MedlinePlus.gov website reports that, “In older adults, life changes can increase the risk for depression or make existing depression worse. Some of these changes are:
- A move from home, such as to a retirement facility
- Chronic illness or pain
- Children moving away
- Spouse or close friends passing away
- Loss of independence (for example, problems getting around or caring for oneself, or loss of driving privileges)”
Furthermore, the Medline Plus website notes that, “Depression can also be related to a physical illness, such as:
- Thyroid disorders
- Parkinson disease
- Heart disease
- Dementia (such as Alzheimer disease)
Overuse of alcohol or certain medicines (such as sleep aids) can make depression worse.”
Today, many seniors live alone and the lack of social interaction can contribute to depression.
Other mental illnesses that are very common amongst older adults include:
- Bipolar disorder
- Substance abuse
Sometimes making a few lifestyle changes can help ward off anger , anxiety and depression.
- increasing social interaction,
- getting plenty of physical exercise and sleep,
- and / or spending time doing hobbies or activities they love can help reduce angry outbursts.
Seeking professional help for these issues is important not only for the elder adult but for their family as well. Whether it’s individual therapy and/or joining a support group, the help is always there for the taking.
Environmental factors, such as noise, heat, or bright lights, can also trigger anger in the elderly.
As they saying goes, getting older isn’t for wimps. Many things can contribute to anger and outbursts in older individuals.
If older children and caregivers can learn to understand some of the effects of aging, they may become less resentful of mood swings in their senior loved one.
In addition, if you uncover a physical reason for their anger, you may be able to get them the necessary help that could make their later years happier.