Dealing with Negative Elderly Parents | Practical Tips for Yourself and Your Parent

Dealing with negative elderly parents is a challenge. Tricky interactions can leave you feeling unappreciated, under-valued and drained. Regularly being met with pessimism and complaint is hard.

Even when there are really good reasons for the negative behaviour, being on the receiving end of it is tough. Dealing with negative elderly parents will involve learning how to regulate your own emotional responses whilst also employing strategies to effect change.

Examples of negative behaviour in elderly parents

If you have a sense that you can never do anything right by your parents, or that anything you do isn’t good enough, then you may well be facing negative behaviour. Clues to negative behaviour largely come up in certain phrases, but it’s also there in stubbornness and refusal to engage. You may find that your parent is overly picky and seems primed to start arguments at any moment. Negative parents tend to get angry or silent over small or inconsequential issues.

Example phrases that indicate negative behaviour include:

  • “I’m not a child, don’t tell me what to do.”
  • “You don’t do anything/enough for me.”
  • “I can’t do what I want to do.”
  • “You just want to put me in a care home.”
  • “I’m just a burden to you.”
  • “I’m no use to anyone.”

Why are elderly parents negative

Unfortunately, if your parent has always been a negative character then that is unlikely to change. You may simply be seeing a greater concentration of personality traits that already existed. However, if your elderly parent is much more negative than they have previously been, or this is out of character with who they used to be, then this may be due to:

  • Physical decline: Being unable to physically and practically do the things they used to do can lead to frustration.
  • Mental decline: Loss of memory or cognitive function can be confusing, demoralising and depressing. Irritability can also be a sign of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.
  • Pain: Many older people experience more daily and chronic pain due to a number of different reasons and this can lead to short-tempers and lack of tolerance for other small difficulties in life.
  • Loss of independence: Feeling that they are lacking control of their own life, because of losing independence can be hard.
  • Depression and anxiety: Around 25% of people over 65 in the UK suffer from depression. Depression isn’t a normal part of ageing, but it can have significant consequences. Irritability is a symptom of depression.
  • Boredom: As humans, we need social connection and we need purpose. These can be difficult to enable for elderly people and the lack of these can lead to an abundance of negative thinking.

Tips for dealing with negative elderly parents

Dealing with negative elderly parents can be draining and exhausting. It can feel that no matter how much you do, it’s never enough, or never good enough. Being within the parent-child dynamic, with the conditioning of childhood, it can bring up feelings of guilt, shame and inadequacy. It can also feel incredibly lonely if you don’t have anyone to share the difficulties with.

These practical tips can help you to manage the situation:

1.      Consider if it’s a new problem

If it is new that your parent is being difficult then it is worth considering if there is a medical reason for the sudden change. Encourage your parent to see their GP and ask to accompany them. Urinary tract infections (UTIs), dementia and side effects of medication can all trigger difficult behaviour.

2.      Separate yourself from blame

Your parent’s negative behaviour is not your fault and it’s not a reflection of you, no matter how responsible you feel. Keep reminding yourself that you are doing the very best you can with the time and resources (including energy and emotional strength) that you can.

3.      Acknowledge your parent’s thoughts

Trying to talk someone out of negative thinking never works if it’s a case of trying to jolly them along. Sometimes, acknowledging how they feel can be much more powerful. This doesn’t excuse their behaviour, but it shows that you care and you recognise their struggles. For example, you can try phrases such as “It must be frustrating to feel that…”, “I can understand that it’s hard to…”, “It must be hard not being able to…” If nothing else, it gives them less to fight against if you are acknowledging their feelings.

Empathise with your parent. Chat about what it’s like for them having their independence limited, or how difficult being unwell is. Ask them for suggestions.

4.      Combat boredom

You are probably in one of the busiest phases of your life. Conversely, your elderly parent may struggle to fill the hours of their day. This can lead to a tug o’ war where you genuinely can’t give more, but they genuinely need more.

If boredom is sitting behind much of their irritability and negativity, then it’s important to think about how you can combat this without stretching yourself thinner. Encourage them to attend groups and arrange visits from friends or community members. Teach your parent how to use technology and get further afield family members helping with loneliness and isolation. Make good relationships with local organisations and taxi firms, to help your parent get out and about. Help to create structure and routine to their week.

5.      Focus on fun when you are together

It’s very easy to get into negative spirals. As such, it can be worth pushing engaging and fun activities when you are together. Encourage them to participate in a board game, or ask them for ideas for a day out. This helps to build connection with their daily life again.

6.      Set limits

Fundamentally, you need to protect your own wellbeing first and foremost. Without your own emotional and physical health, you will be unable to help and the situation can be made worse.

If your parent’s negative behaviour is greatly affecting you then it can be helpful to set limits, or boundaries. Try to be honest with your parent about the things that they do which are difficult and explain what will happen (e.g. you leave) if they step over your limit.

7.      Be open with them

If your parent’s negativity is due to something other than dementia, then it can be helpful to talk to them about the impact of their negativity on you. They may not realise the impact their behaviour is having, especially if it’s making family members less inclined to see them regularly.

Try to have authentic conversations where you share things from your life, so they can understand your limitations. Try to combat their negativity by asking for their suggestions for how to make it better. Try to problem solve together.

8.      Get help and support

It is very hard dealing with a difficult elderly parent. It is easier if you have help and support. This may be ad hoc help and care such as regular visits from other friends and family, or a cleaner, or it may be more structured help, such as carers.

There may come a time when that help may come best in the form of residential care. Nursing care needs can be met, and social needs are also better served within a care home community. From eating with others to social programmes and easier access to health support, a care home often alleviates many of the causes behind your parent’s behaviour.

9.      Look after yourself

It’s very important to realise that the stress of the situation takes its toll. Take active steps to look after yourself. Take breaks regularly, giving yourself the mind space to come back to things more positively yourself. Know when to insist on more help. Your own self-care is really important.

It is very difficult dealing with negative elderly parents, and it can often be a long road. Try to employ some of the tips above so that you have the stamina for the long haul.