Aged Care in Australia

Dealing with embarrassing behaviour: tips for family members and carers

Elderly woman's lap, with hands folded

Are your elderly parents acting up? Things like swearing, inappropriate comments, anger and declining personal hygiene are far more common than you might think.

You probably feel like you’re the only one dealing with these issues – that’s not surprising as it isn’t generally something we like to talk about. However, carers often have to cope with unruly and embarrassing behaviour from their care recipients.

We’ve put together a list of the 7 most common “bad behaviours” that your elderly parents might display – and some tips for coping with them.

1. Anger and abuse

Unfortunately, as a primary carer you will often be the main target of anger and abuse from your elderly loved one. Most of the time, it is not intentional and because they feel safest with you, you bear the brunt of their frustration.

Ageing and declining health can be scary and frustrating, and it is common for these emotions to spark resentment and manifest as anger. Living with chronic pain, an increasing inability to do certain tasks, loss of friends and memory issues can really take its toll and become too much to handle.

How to cope with anger and abuse

  • First, ensure that this behaviour is not a result of an underlying medical condition, such as dementia.
  • Try to find the underlying cause of their anger – it may be due to pain, fear, grief
  • Explain how their behaviour affects you – they may not be aware of what they are doing or of the hurt they are causing you
  • Take a break! Everyone needs time to themselves, so make sure you take regular breaks from caring duties to refresh and re-energise
  • Get some outside help. People always lash out at family members and those closest to them, so having help from outsiders may stop the abusive behaviour
  • If physical abuse is a problem, you will need to seek professional help

2. Suspect personal hygiene

A decline in personal hygiene is one of the most common issues seen in ageing adults. This issue can be very frustrating for carers, and an awkward topic to broach. Understanding the cause is an important first step to improving personal hygiene. There are many reasons for poor personal care, such as dementia and other memory issues, modesty, fear, depression, control, frugality or a decreased sense of sight and smell.

Your loved one may be losing track of time and forgetting to shower or change and wash their clothing due to memory issues. It is also possible that changes to their eyesight and sense of smell are the cause; they may not be able to see stains on their clothes, or smell their own body odour.

A fear of slipping in the bath or shower may also have a large impact on the frequency of their showering. It may be that they require assistance showering, but are not comfortable having someone help them with this and are therefore avoiding it altogether.

Tips for managing personal hygiene issues

  • Rule out medical reasons, such as dementia or depression – if these are the cause, medical intervention and medication may help
  • If modesty is the problem, they may be open to a professional care worker helping them with personal hygiene, rather than a family member
  • Set alarms to remind them to put on a load of washing, or to shower
  • Installing handrails, non-slip mats, or a shower chair may help to allay their fear of falling
  • Try not to nag as this can often make things worse, especially if a need for control is the cause. You may have to adjust your standards and relax your definition of cleanliness

3. Hoarding

Hoarding can become a dangerous habit, especially for older adults. Having living spaces full of clutter increases the risk of falls and the spread of disease due to unsanitary conditions. It also poses a problem for emergency services and their ability to access the home and provide assistance if required.

Hoarding is often a sign of dementia, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, depression or anxiety. Older people may also begin to hoard due to their fear of ageing and an uncertainty of what lies ahead, causing them to hold onto items as memories of the past. Anxiety around money and finance may also cause older people to hold onto things and create a great reluctance to throw anything out.

How to prevent and change hoarding habits

  • If the problem is serious, a visit to the doctor is the first priority as hoarding is often the result of a medical condition
  • Therapy or counselling is a great option if hoarding is cause by an anxiety condition, depression or OCD
  • Encourage and help them to declutter. This must be done with kindness and compassion. You must approach this task slowly and bit by bit, and understand that throwing away just one small item may be a major event for your loved one
  • Create an organised system for storing and a memory box for special items

4. Poor financial management

Money difficulties in older adults is a recurring issue. Both ends of the scale are common, from extreme overspending, gambling and huge donations to charities, through to an absolute refusal to spend even a single cent on necessary items.  These issues can be incredibly frustrating and worrying for carers, but questioning a parent’s ability to manage their finances often goes poorly.

Managing money can be one of the remaining aspects of independence for an elderly person, so letting go of this can feel like they are conceding and admitting they are no longer capable. A loss of independence is often what leads to the overspending or underspending activities in the first place. It is a compensation for losing control in other aspects of their lives.

Tips for helping to manage finances

  • Broaching this topic is likely to be met with resistance and an insistence that your loved one can spend their money on whatever they like! However, mismanaging money is often one of the first signs of dementia, so ensure you have them assessed by a medical professional
  • Your financial opinion may not be well-regarded, so bring in an expert. A financial adviser may be a good first option
  • If they are carelessly overspending, show them the total cost of this – it may be a shock and enough to adjust their habits
  • If they are underspending, it is likely that you have been covering a lot of their costs. Their penny-pinching habits will probably extend to a desire for their family to not have to spend excess money, so showing them just how much you’ve been spending on them may help to open their eyes.

5. Swearing and inappropriate comments

Have you noticed that your elderly parent, who used to be polite and mild-mannered, has now started cursing and using offensive language? You’re not alone.

It can be a shock when profanities and inappropriate comments suddenly spurt from the mouth of your loved one. If it happens in public, it can be incredibly embarrassing and you might find yourself constantly apologising to people. You may even be at the point where you no longer take your loved one anywhere and are instead dealing with the offensive language and name-calling in private.

How to manage swearing and offensive language

  • Again, this may be an early sign of dementia – so get your loved one to the doctor for a check-up
  • Surprisingly, a urinary tract infection may be the cause! The symptoms of UTI’s are very different in older adults, and can often cause agitation and other behavioural changes. Make sure you get this checked and rule it out as a cause
  • If there is no medical reason, you might just have to be blunt by letting them know that you will not tolerate such behaviour, especially in public
  • Try not to take the behaviour personally and if a swearing tirade sets in, the best option might be to walk away and wait for it to pass
  • You can try to divert their attention by focussing on something else and prompting them to talk about something that they love, or reminiscing about the past

6. Obsessions and paranoia

Isolation and a lack of social interaction can often lead to some paranoia and small obsessions. However, if your loved one is obsessing over saving minor items, worrying about the timing of taking medication, constantly picking at their skin, or accusing family members of stealing from them, it could be a warning sign of a serious health problem. Dementia, anxiety, depression, addictive personality and OCD could all be to blame.

Addressing and managing any of these symptoms is extremely difficult, especially if paranoia is a problem. It is likely that their paranoia will shift to you as someone to be suspicious of, and your ability to help will become an impossibility.

How to address obsessions and paranoia

  • In most cases, medical and professional intervention will be necessary. Get them to a doctor as soon as possible
  • Keep track of all the things your loved one is saying and doing so that you can give their doctor a comprehensive report
  • Make sure you know what medication they are taking, as these symptoms could be side-effects of that
  • If dementia is the cause, the best course of action is to just go with the flow – try not to create any more stress or confusion by arguing with them or trying to convince them of a different reality
  • If their paranoias are creating fear and anxiety, assure them that they are safe and that you won’t let anything happen to them
  • Keep an eye out for anything that might trigger their obsessions and try to eliminate or direct them away from that trigger. Distraction is often necessary.

7. Over-the-top demands and expectations

Elderly adults can become reliant on their carers. As a carer, you might fear that your older loved one might experience harm, so you try to do everything for them. In many cases, this is a poor option and can lead to a loss of independence and a decline in their ability to do things on their own.

If your loved one is still capable of doing things for themselves, yet relies on your for all of their physical and emotional support, it is very likely that it is affecting priorities in your own life such as work, family, and your physical and mental health.

Becoming electively dependent on you can lead to sabotage. Has your loved one purposely disrupted your plans so that you have to stay with them? If so, it’s time for an intervention!

Dealing with a demanding loved one

  • Make yourself a priority
  • Set clear rules and boundaries
  • Try to get your parent involved in social activities that do not involve you – check out local community groups and sign them up! Creating a social network will improve mental health and reduce their dependency on you
  • If your loved one refuses to leave home, try and find a local home care business or volunteer groups that provide companionship services
  • Enlist other family members or friends to help with caring duties

Need some more advice?

For expert advice on finding an aged care provider, or a provider who specialises in dementia care, call CareAbout on 1300 576 386.

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