Anger and the Elderly

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If you are an adult, either a caregiver or simply an individual with an older person in your life, you may be noticing that that person increasingly seems angry, short-tempered, intolerant, or simply nasty. One of your children may have remarked that “Grandpa is always grumpy,” or is upset because a grandparent reprimanded him or her for making noise, playing the TV too loudly, or making a mess.

One thing to remember is that both age and illness can often intensify personality traits that an individual may have had their entire life. The person who often found fault with others now seems to be hypercritical and even mean in his or her opinions of others. The person who was always somewhat intolerant of anyone different or not like them, now seems downright bigoted. Rudeness, a tendency to interrupt, neediness, and manipulation may all become more pronounced as a person ages.

Part of the reason for this is that some older people simply become less sensitive to others as they age.  Particularly for older people who live alone or who have been living alone for a while, their tolerance of the way others do things, their tolerance for others at all, can be diminished simply as a result of their having been able to do things pretty much their way for a long period of time: when you have no one but yourself to answer to, it becomes hard to remember to accept other people’s preference and their way of doing things.

This sense of isolation can also be greatly increased as an older person’s peers –a spouse, cousins, friends and acquaintances- themselves pass away. The world can be a lonely place when everyone you “know” is dead, no matter how many adult children, grandchildren, or even great-grandchildren you may have.

Older people also, as they struggle to deal with their own diminished capacities, with physical deterioration and the indignities this often brings about, often express their own fear, embarrassment, and discomfort as hostility. They may resent having to be helped into or out of a chair; they may resent having to use a cane or a walker and the need for someone to help them up the walkway or the front steps. Forgetfulness, losing things, or the inability to understand the commands and remote control on their new cable TV box can all be extremely frustrating (and frightening!) to an older person.

Many fear giving up their independence. Many fear losing their home and having to give up familiar surroundings. Many fear the prospect of an assisted living facility or nursing home. In the face of the loss of control they fear, some older people try to prove their independence by making decisions –often financial decisions- that are not well thought out, are very questionable, or are beyond their means.

It is important to recognize that diseases like Alzheimer’s and dementia can also cause many of these behaviors. In those cases the person really doesn’t have the control over what they do or say.

The second thing you can do is to help other family members understand why Grandpa or Grandma may be acting this way. Reminding children that Grandpa doesn’t like too much noise, or that Grandma likes to watch a certain program and the TV has to be shared, can go a long way towards making an older relative’s visits more pleasant all around.


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