Dealing with Negative Elderly Parents

Do any of these feel familiar?

“My elderly Mother is never happy.”

“Dad is just a grumpy old man and I can’t handle it anymore!”

“All my parents do is complain. I try to help, but I don’t seem to be able to do anything right.”

“Dealing with negative elderly parents is taking a toll on my whole family.”

We previously discussed How to Deal with Negative Parents and tackled different arguments between adult children and their parents, which apparently struck a chord! They are some of our most popular posts and we wrote them because we hear about such challenges from families every day.

Grumpy Old Man or Depressed Old Man?

One of the first considerations is understanding what might be causing the negativity. Though it’s not always the case, irritability, anger, and even confusion can be signs of depression, especially in elders. Read more about depression in the elderly.

Depression can be especially tricky, as you may want to help but are often frustrated in your efforts. One of the ways depression plays out is in lack of motivation, loss of interest in normal activities, and hopelessness. Therefore, it isn’t so easy to deal with a grumpy old man or unhappy Mom experiencing depression. We have some tips for caregivers here and we highly recommend reaching out for support. Sometimes it helps just to talk to someone about “living with a grumpy old man” or frustrations with a negative attitude. Just because you know there’s an underlying cause doesn’t automatically make it easier to solve.

Even if an elder is not clinically depressed, the root of their negativity may be the losses they’re experiencing. They may be isolated and not have much to focus on except aches, pains, and problems. Physical discomfort often leads to irritability too.

Another Root Issue for Some Negative Elderly Parents: Cognitive Issues

Another reason behind irritability and negativity could be cognitive issues (i.e. dementia/Alzheimer’s). Dementia and depression can mimic each other, so if you suspect any of these issues, it is vital to get a diagnostic workup. There are different underlying causes of cognitive problems in the elderly, some of which are treatable.

A person with any type of dementia may experience personality changes. The physical changes to the brain may be involved. Or, the person may be experiencing confusion, frustration and fear. Just imagine yourself in the shoes of the person who feels they are losing their grasp on things…you might become a grumpy old man too. We often see clients with dementia lash out at those closest to them and get extremely defensive. It is often easier to complain about things than to admit what you’re experiencing. And, in many cases, it isn’t even possible for a person with dementia (even at an early stage) to verbalize what they’re feeling.

What if He Is Just a Grumpy Old Man?

Unfortunately, not every case of “grumpy old man syndrome” has a root cause or good solutions. Sometimes dealing with negative elderly parents is just a continuation of a lifetime of dealing with a negative personality. In that case, some of the tips (outside help in particular) below are especially important to help you manage. The focus will be on managing and coping, versus solving.

In other cases, it may be that your parent is having difficulty adjusting to all the change (and loss) that can come with aging. A classic example of the grumpy old man is a person who identified closely with their profession and is at a loss for his/her place since retiring. They may have been used to their routine and running things, and now they feel a true lack of control. That person often tries to grasp for any feeling of control. To you, this may come across as stubbornness or refusing to take advice or suggestions.

Tips for Dealing with Negative Elderly Parents

1. Get an assessment to identify root issues and get personalized solutions.

Care managers are the experts in grumpy old men and unhappy Moms. No, really! We excel at understanding what’s really going on with elders, as well as looking at the big picture to suggest solutions that will actually work. We have many years of experience working with families in conflict, elders with dementia who are lashing out, and all kinds of tough circumstances.


2. Get home caregivers involved.

This is one of the best things you can do! Why? First, it gives you a break. It means your grumpy Dad has someone else to talk to (complain to). This will also help reduce isolation and get them more active, which in turn helps with depression and irritability.

The caregiver(s) can be sure your loved one gets better nutrition, takes their meds properly, has a nice environment, looks and feels their best, etc. All of which address some of the underlying issues that are likely contributing to negativity. A home caregiver can also be a direct answer to some of your parents complaints.

3. Know when you need a break or somewhere to vent.

Whether it’s respite care, regular support sessions with a care manager, or a caregiver support group, know when you need to reach out. If you find yourself with a short fuse (when you become a grumpy younger man or woman!), it’s time to get some separation. Perhaps you’re lashing out at other family members or just feeling no energy for your other roles. It can be draining to deal with negative elderly parents. You may think you have no way to get away from it, but you do have choices and support is available.

4. Enlist help from others. Don’t be reluctant to admit when someone else can deal with Mom or Dad better.

For example, Dad might listen to your brother more…maybe especially on certain issues. Don’t fight this, use the knowledge to make things run smoother. If your family has conflict between siblings, there may be ways to harness your differences and tackle different areas of caring for your parents. We can mediate family discussions to set up the best way to handle things.

Oftentimes, families tell us they’re a bit upset at first, but then relieved that their parent listens to their care manager or caregiver more. Again, take advantage of that. Remember, it’s not always easy to have your “kid” telling you what to do. They may still see you as a kid, even when you’re 70. Sometimes you know Mom is likely to listen to what her doctor or accountant has to say. Whatever works…work it!

What are your biggest frustrations dealing with negative elderly parents? Come over to our Caregivers’ Facebook group and share! It’s a safe space to vent, offer what’s worked for you, or get ideas.

Sign up for the Aging Wisely newsletter for more on this topic and other caregiving dilemmas.