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How to Handle Stubborn Elderly Parents

by Derrick
stubborn senior lady

“Stubborn elderly parents” is not a respectable way to think of our parents, but let’s face it, some seniors can get downright ornery as they age. I’ve seen it firsthand many times working with adult children and their senior parents in long-term care.

As your parents age, you may notice some changes in them. Not only physical changes but mental changes and changes in the way they handle problems. As it goes, we all change, and you are not the same person you were some 20 or more years ago. The same is true of your parents.

However, you may not like the changes you are seeing. While some elder parents stay active, decide to travel, or otherwise just enjoy their golden years, some may feel lost in after retirement and beyond. Retirement is not a rescue for everyone, and those who are used to working daily may find the new sense of freedom burdening, and can’t find ways to fill the time.

As no two parents (and no two people) are the same, here I will try to address some general notions on aging parents and what we can do to soothe issues that arise. As it happens, we change as we age, and sometimes, these changes are not welcomed by everybody. And while we all have our inalienable rights, we should be mindful of how changes in our own behavior and our own attitudes may reflect on those around us.

Stubborn Traits and How to Handle Them

It is difficult to predict what aging will bring to your parents, but if you’re reading this because your parents are becoming stubborn, take some solace in knowing you’re not the only one in that situation. Some large life events can bring about changes in behavior and worldview that can be difficult to process and deal with. The loss of a loved one, for example, is difficult to process on its own. Pair that with an awakening sense of one’s own transiency, and we have an issue that may call for professional help.

Many adult children people report that their parents become unavailable, excluded, grumpy, and irritable as they age. They also report feeling lost at these changes and difficult to accept their aging parents and all the associated changes in their personality.

Getting adjusted to a “new” parent is not easy. Changes in their behavior can be seen everywhere: from the way they relate to others to the way they talk to your children. It is only natural to feel lost and to wish for your old parents to come back. However, very few people actually have the strength and communication skills that are good enough to sit down with their parents and talk the issues over.

Even then, outbursts and arguments may happen. Your aging parent(s) may be pressed with problems and stresses that are outside of your scope of understanding. Furthermore, they may be pressed by issues you are unaware of or have never been told about. Many elderly decide to hide their medical conditions, for example.

The best, least painful, and most respectful way to deal with stubborn parents is way to simply accept your parents for who they are (or who they have become) and try to adjust to a new mode of communication in your family. The alternative is trying to change who they’ve become, which typically yields more stubbornness, and ultimately, resentment on both sides. It’s not worth it.

Many have difficulties dealing with these issues. Problems with mobility, chronic pain, diabetes, and high blood pressure may all lead to exhaustion and irritability in an aging person. When agitated, they may argue, have anger outbursts, show hostility toward you, as well as become negative, secluded, start negating their problems or blame you for some of the issues that they cannot fully resolve.

Arguing

Whatever the issues behind the angry face before you may be, you should remain composed and understand that anger is not a solution. You may feel the need to yell and argue yourself, but in this case, you should know that anger can build up, and anything you say will stay with both of you for a long, long time. It is best to remain composed, however difficult it may seem, and to try to understand the problem to the best of your abilities.

stubborn mom and angry daughter

Anger Outbursts

Arguing often leads to anger outbursts. While arguing can mean keeping a composed voice and appearance, it can lead to actual yelling and aggressive behavior. This can be very difficult to deal with, and the best that you can do is try to calm the situation. You should understand that sometimes, giving up on an issue is much better than trying to resolve it, especially in heated arguments.

Hostility

A loving person and a loving home can soon turn into a hostile environment if the communication between you two is not good or as good as it used to be. In this case, anything can feel like a personal attack. Rather than feeling left out or hurt, you should understand the whole situation and take no personal blows. Remember, these are still your loving parents.

Negativity

General negativity that you may feel around the aging members of your family is, in part, your own view. Although it can be difficult to accept this, and although it can be easy to justify the negative feelings by blaming your parents for it, understand that how you feel at any moment is a result of your own expectations. Rather than dwelling on the feelings of negativity, try to find a silver lining – there is some in every situation.

Negation (Suppression)

One of the common defense mechanisms that the elderly go to when hurt is negation. They tend to negate issues of any kind, as well as their part in those. With this in mind, you should know that pressing them can only boost their ability to seclude themselves and pretend the problem isn’t there. Rather than attacking, you should empower them to state what has happened. Questions such as “How would you approach the issue” and “What can you do to ease the pain/problem/etc.” sound much better than pointing fingers and raising voices.

Blaming

What naturally stems from negation is blaming. When unable to resolve issues on their own or take responsibility for their own partaking in problems that may arise in the family, the elderly may start putting the blame on anyone around them – including you. For this reason, you should understand the issue at hand in more detail and be able to work your way around the blame that is being put on you.

What Can You Do to Ease Their Pain?

Once we know common issues that may arise with aging parents, we should know how to resolve them as well. Bear in mind that these are not real issues, as most of these problems are temporary. The loss of a life companion, for example, leaves deep marks that can take well over a year to heal and make them feel better again. Here is what you can do to deal with aging parents who are struggling:

Offer Help

Offer help when you feel it is safe to. Bear in mind that some people may have pride, and what is a well-intended offer for help coming from you may be seen as a threat to one’s independence and integrity by them. You should be cautious and help more by action than narration.

Offer Support

As offering help can be offensive, offering emotional support instead is the best thing to do. If you feel that the bottled-up anger is coming from somewhere deeper or that the issues your parents are facing stem back, you should offer support and empower them to speak and understand their emotions. If you reach a no-break point, do not insist. Simply let what you’ve talked about thus far settle before proceeding.

son giving emotional support to his father

Be Understanding

Whenever an issue arises, you should not overreact. Rather take the situation lightly and try to be understanding, not only of the issue itself but rather of your parents’ emotional way of dealing with it. Spiraling at a broken glass, for example, could potentially show there are deeper issues your parents may be dealing with. Use these small signals as indicators of how you should act in that situation.

Be Mindful – Take a Holistic Approach to Your Parents’ Aging

Be mindful of your parents’ aging. Always look at the bigger picture and never let yourself lose control over your emotions. Try to understand their upbringing and their relations with their parents. Try to be mindful of the emotional stresses that they’ve been through lately and any health issues that they may have. Offer help and understanding when possible, but beware of what kind of questions you ask – you do not want to touch an old wound, especially not as someone who is not a professional in the field.

Accept That They Are Changing

Your parents are changing, and there is little chance they will return to who they were. You need to understand that no matter how much support you give them, they will keep changing. However, what you can do is offer support and positivity and empower them to deal with their own problems. This will make it more likely that they adopt new but positive behavior.

Ask for Support

If you still find yourself lost in the image of your changing parent, you should consider getting help. The same way your parents are changing and may be temporarily unable to deal with their aging, you, too, may be unable to deal with their aging. Understand that you should not seek professional help for them but rather for yourself. Also, bear in mind that an Internet life coach or a motivational speaker may not be enough.

FAQ About Stubborn Aging Parents

How do you negotiate with stubborn parents?

Negotiating with stubborn parents involves several steps: recognizing their independence and their right to their own opinion, recognizing that they are your parents and that they deserve respect, avoiding confrontation, picking your battles, and understanding the consequences of any action for both parties. Once this foundation stone has been laid, you should proceed by using “I” sentences while staying respectful and mindful of their own needs.

How do you deal with a bitter elderly parent?

If you are facing a bitter elderly parent, you should put yourself in their shoes first. Do they suffer from pain or emotional issues? Have they lost someone important recently? Can they handle the issue at hand? Only then can you proceed. Once you understand that you are not responsible for their bitterness, you should not feel as personally attacked.

Why do elderly parents become mean?

In most cases, elderly parents who become mean have difficulties dealing with problems of their own. Narrowing social circles and difficulties that come with old age may be difficult to cope with, so above all, you should offer support and help when needed. They are not really mean, but their worries may be overwhelming to them.

How do you set boundaries with elderly difficult parents?

Understanding why your parents may be difficult to deal with is the first step to setting boundaries with them. Have a plan before you make a visit and try to figure out which topics may be irritating to them. Avoid these topics and make it clear that your decisions are only yours to make. Understand their take and never start arguments.

Final Considerations for Stubborn Elderly Parents

As we age, we experience changes and change ourselves. There is no reason why our parents should stay the same. However, these changes can be difficult to accept as most of the changes that our parents face are for the worse – loss of dear people and health being the most prevalent. Learning how to cope with changing parents is not easy, but it is a necessary step toward your own maturation and a great tool for maintaining communication sound.

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