How to Deal With Irrational Elderly Parents

4 min read

Parent-child relationships change as you reach your own adulthood, and your roles may shift. But what if your parents become more and more difficult, or seem irrational, with age? How can you stay patient and respectful while keeping your own peace of mind?

Corrine Ptacek, of Roselle, IL, lives about 40 minutes from her parents. Her father has Alzheimer’s disease and gets care through the VA. But dealing with her difficult mother makes things worse for Ptacek, the oldest of three grown daughters.

“I’ve turned over my role as heath care designate for my dad to my sister,” she says, adding that her mother won’t support care decisions or share paperwork. “[My mother] would like us to attend doctors’ appointments but doesn't work with our schedules and doesn’t work with us in helping her with daily tasks.” All three sisters work full-time in demanding jobs and have their own families.

When her mother fell, she refused in-home physical therapy and insisted that Ptacek’s father, who already had dementia, drive her to appointments. This caused a lot of fear and worry, Ptacek says.

“Parents may make demands on you that you are unwilling or unable to meet,” says Steven Zarit, PhD, a professor and department head of human development and family studies at Penn State University in University Park, PA. “It could be about how much you visit or help them with daily activities or about moving in with you. And as you probably know already, a demanding parent will not become less demanding just because you have given in on a particular issue.”

Zarit suggests taking a calm moment to think about what you can and can’t handle. “Make a list and be very specific,” he says. “You might talk the list over with a spouse or siblings. Make the list your guideline. Do the things you are willing to do, and draw the line over the things you won't do.”

Also, resist the urge to argue. “You don't have to provide a reason or try to win an argument,” Zarit says. “Just stick to your decision not to provide this help and end the conversation.”

If you’d tried this approach but still feel distress, or if your parent balks at the boundaries, it’s time to bring in a pro. Zarit suggests finding a psychologist or social worker, or other geriatric mental health specialist with expertise in this area.

“They can be hard to find, but it's worthwhile to do some searching. They will be able to evaluate the situation and help you plan out a course of action, including setting boundaries.”

“I think one of the biggest challenges for caregivers and situations is identifying what you can and can’t control,” says Christina Irving, a licensed clinical social worker. “Even when there is dementia, we can’t force people to do certain things we want them to do.”

For example, you may want your parents to eat better, use a cane, or have in-home care. But they say no. “At the end of the day, they still have the right to make their choices, even if we don’t like their choices,” says Irving, who is client services director at the Family Caregiver Alliance at the National Center on Caregiving in San Francisco.

“That’s what’s difficult: being the adult when your parents need [help], and not reverting to the child role,” Ptacek says. Another big issue is her mother’s expectations of her care. “My mom cared for her mother, and [my grandmother] lived with us,” she says. “Mom is thinking we ‘owe’ her the same attentiveness she provided her mother. That’s not happening with any of us.”

Anxiety and fear about what’s going to happen, as well as guilt, can come into play too, Irving says. Individual counseling can be key for family caregivers. “You’re dealing with your whole history. Sometimes it’s good, and sometimes it’s not so good.” No matter your very best efforts, it’s important to understand you can’t control everything.

It can help to think about reasons your parent may be arguing with you, Zarit says. “One thing is their own anger and fear over needing help. No one likes to feel dependent. … Also, keep in mind that you are their child. They may not want to accept advice from you, no matter how rational it might seem to you.”

Instead of getting swept up, take a breather to dial down the conflict. Zarit recommends mindfulness training to help lessen stress and keep calm. Rooted in Buddhism, but no longer just religion-based, the practice teaches you to stay in the present with a focus on your breath. A geriatric mental health specialist can also help you come up with other ways to keep the peace.

Every state in the U.S. has funding through the National Family Care Support system that you can tap into, Irving says. They can help you find local resources that can connect you with help.

Also, even if you’re not a “support group” person, they can help you learn more about specific diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

“Another thing that a mental health professional can do is help you understand some of the reasons for your parent's behavior,” Zarit says. “The first thought many people have is that difficult behavior is due to dementia, but it may also be the result of a mental health problem or their anxiety and depression over the difficulties they are having in managing everyday life. Knowing the likely cause may lead to a treatment that helps.”