How to Deal with Irrational Elderly Parents

“To care for those who once cared for us is one of the highest honors.”

Let’s face it. Getting old is not for sissies. We’ve all heard that expression before and it could not be more true.

An angry outburst, difficult behavior, impatience, being unruly, agitated, delusional, obsessive-compulsive, persisting fears, worries or complaints, demanding, irrational, forgetful, repetitive, paranoid, high-maintenance, incessant questioning – all common behaviors you might experience when you are classified as elderly. Definitely not for the faint-hearted.

As the daughter or son of an elderly mother and/or father, there will be, no doubt, times when you find yourself struggling or pushed to the limits or even overwhelmed by the challenges you face with caring for and dealing with such behavior.

The reality is – growing old is hard to accept. Personality changes brought on by cognitive impairment like Dementia, short term memory loss or other health issues or even negative side effects of medication – imagine what it must feel like and realize that you will get there too one day.

Degeneration, interfering with quality of life and daily routine, not to mention mental health, is at stake. It can be baffling and out of character. These outbursts are all symptoms, not personality flaws. A coping mechanism perhaps for loss of dignity, knowing (or not) that they do not have full control over their words and actions anymore. Additionally, the aging process magnifies the extent of their needs and they feel vulnerable.

“People who don’t cherish their elderly have forgotten whence they came and whither they go”.

Not to excuse or make light of these stressful and emotional times, for everyone.

Here is some food for thought.


Remain in control of your emotions:

  • Find joy in every moment you spend with your parent(s) – even if you have to dig deep.
  • Use distraction tactics… reminisce, talk about their happier past times.
  • Do the right thing. All the time.
  • Do all you can to not say something you will regret. Read that again.
  • Foster positive emotions.
  • We will all ‘get old’, so muster up patience, kindness and lean into love.
  • Try to remain calm and speak with a soothing voice and empathize.
  • Minimise stress, for yourself and for your parent(s) – stress is the real killer.
  • Don’t take any of it personally.
  • Whatever you do, ensure your relationship does not take too much strain and become harmed. This leads to resentment, anger and guilt.

Seek understanding:

  • Remember, the aging process is not easy and definitely scary, especially when things change around you and within you.
  • Try to find the root cause of the irrational behavior.
  • Talk to them – if they are unable to articulate frustrations, take it step-by-step and try to improve the situation and/or eliminate the ‘problem’ if you are able.
  • When you really need to change a behavior (like use of offensive language or inappropriate comments) start by trying to explain, if appropriate, how their behavior makes you feel.

Listen more, speak less:

(that is why we have a pair of ears and only one mouth, after all.)

  • Listen – people respond well, generally, when they are ‘heard’ and loved.
  • When you do speak, speak with humility.
  • Loss of dignity is hard for anyone to handle, let alone accept.

“Treat your parents with loving care, for you will only know their value when you see their empty chair.”


Practical responses:

  • Seek therapy for your parent(s) for really difficult scenarios, beyond your control.
  • Social activities for your parent(s) is a good way to divvy up the time so it doesn’t feel like you are constantly care-taking.
  • If your parent(s) are housebound, enlist other family members, friends, etc to assist and keep your parent(s) company.
  • Keep reminding yourself that your needs are also a priority, set boundaries, don’t burnout, be mindful of your own mental and physical health. When the going gets really tough – take a break, literally. Call a friend and ‘vent’. Get some fresh air.
  • Practical (DIY) help – if your parent(s) still live at home, help them from a practical point of view so that daily living is as smooth sailing as possible. Observe their ‘living’ and make practical, small changes to anything you can, if required, for them to be comfortable.
  • If outside caregivers are required, make no mistake they may well be refused, point-blank. A caregiver just reinforces that they need help and most likely feel vulnerable. A little planning may be required for a smooth transition.
  • It’s very possible that your parent(s) may need to be evaluated by their GP, if you feel there is a deeper, underlying issue that may need medication. Remember, mental health is the big red flashing warning light. From short term memory loss to depression, anxiety and stress.
  • Get ideas on what to do and how to deal with scenarios from other caregivers, counselors or even a doctor. What will be more of a relief is that you will realize other people are facing the same situations, that is guaranteed.

Final thoughts:

  • Losing control is one of man’s biggest fears.
  • The worst behaviour is often directed at loved ones, closest to them.
  • You are only human, so whatever you do, don’t blame yourself, especially if you are doing the best you can.


  • “To care for those who once cared for us is one of the highest honors.”    Tia Walker, author of The Inspired Caregiver.
  • “People who don’t cherish their elderly have forgotten whence they came and whither they go.”    Ramsey Clark.
  • “Treat your parents with loving care… for you will only know their value when you see their empty chair.”   Unknown.
  • “No elderly person should be like an ‘exile’ in our families. The elderly are a treasure for our society.”   Pope Francis.



 References & further reading:

  • Psychology Today (story)

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