Caring for an Elderly Parent: Article 7. Coping with Personality Change

A guide to being strong in yourself as you care for a loved one

My mother was given a maximum of six months to live so we brought her into our home to care for her last days. Three years later she was still with us! I share the insights and understanding that this time brought me and how you can keep your energy and spirits strong through what can be an intensely demanding and challenging time.

A recurring topic of conversation with friends who have helped elderly parents has been about how to cope with their parent’s occasional uncharacteristic outbursts and changes in personality. It’s well documented that Alzheimer’s and severe dementia can affect character and personality, but it seems that even low levels of natural old age or slight dementia can lead to some disturbing and often hilarious situations. I will share some of our experiences and how we have managed the often very upsetting changes to our loved ones.


Photo by Cathal Mac an Bheatha on Unsplash


Loss of perception

Even the most loving and easy-going people can change when they are sick or frail. My friend’s mother had always valued her daughter’s personal life, had never been demanding and I remember her as the sweetest of mothers. But in the last few years she has lost sight of my friend’s needs and even though her daughter struggles with her own family life she is now expecting her to visit every day with an hour each way through heavy London traffic. She has turned down all requests to move closer to her daughter or to move into a care home. She seems out of touch with the reality of her daughter’s life and the impact her demands make on her and her health. This is not unusual, and it does seem that as we get old we can slip back into the dependency of childhood. How do you manage these situations without causing hurt and upset? It is a real challenge but with tact and diplomacy you must create boundaries that protect your own health and emotional state. You need to draw a line and express kindly but firmly our own needs and draw on alternative support and speak honestly and clearly how it must be.


Antagonistic and demanding

One of my friends has a mother who is becoming not only needy and clinging but also antagonistically demanding. She comes from a culture where it is expected that daughters should give up anything and everything to be a companion and carer for elderly parents. In today’s age of single families and female independence it doesn’t necessarily work for a daughter to give up her life for her parent’s. When my friend tries to make plans for holidays and visits away her mother throws a tantrum using manipulation and guilt to get her attention. My friend has managed her situation well by protecting her energy before she visits so that her mother’s hurtful words don’t get through to her (she gets into a huge egg with a thick shell) and she insists on taking time away to recharge her energies and to give herself some peace. If she had succumbed to her all her mother’s demands she too would be sick by now and would have handed her own will and spirit entirely to her mother. I have helped more than one woman who has done just that; it’s devastating to see a daughter who has passed over their life to an autocratic mother in the name of duty and love. Its essential to step back and understand that the attacks are not personal, they are the sign of a woman who has lost her power. It can be helpful to discuss the cause of their anger and lack of concern for you. Find out what would make them feel better; ask why they are antagonistic and without arguing with them listen and see if you can get to the route of their problem. But always remember to protect yourself, let their words go over your head (DUCK) and step back rather than get involved with an argument for this will drain your own energy and upset you.


Start off as you mean to carry on.

Explain gently and clearly just what you can and cannot do and stick to a plan. If you say you cannot come on Thursday evenings because of your art or yoga class don’t sacrifice it unless you really, really must, otherwise you may be expected to give it up every week and you will eventually be taken for granted which will lead to resentment. Remember your parent may feel vulnerable and disempowered by their frailty and or sickness and they will do everything they can to gain energy and personal power, in some cases at your expense. If you have a selfish or demanding mother or father only you can manage the status quoIt’s up to you to draw the line in the sand and dictate kindly but firmly how much you can or are prepared to give of yourself – only you can determine where your boundaries are, dont expect them to do so.


Outrageous outbursts

Certain conditions or illnesses can cause temporary changes of character. Sometimes this can be so outrageous that it’s laughable, (try to find things to laugh about – it’s a wonderful way to lift your energy!)  At one time I had a temporary carer in to help me with my mother’s care. Unfortunately, my mother took an instant dislike to the woman, who had been a nurse and, I must admit was rather bossy. Once she would have gone along with anyone who was helping but this time she let her feelings be known. “I don’t like that one,” she said to me in a very loud voice in hearing distance of the offending woman. I frowned and signalled to her to shush but she just repeated once again. “No, I don’t like her at all.” I apologised on her behalf and at first the lady carried on gallantly but after four days she threw in the towel. She accused my mother of being racist and stormed off. So embarrassing! Two other friends have had similar experiences with their mothers who have always been extremely kind, open hearted and open-minded! I did discover that she was suffering from a urinary tract infection which can create a condition like dementia and fortunately the outrageous outbursts were soon over after a course of antibiotics! So, what can you do to keep the carers happy if your parent suffers any form of dementia and turns into a termagant overnight? Explain that your parent has a condition that does not reflect on the carer or helper and ask for their tolerance and understanding. Also have a store of boxes of chocolate and apology notes to hand!


Patience and Understanding.

There is no doubt you will need to dig deep for patience and understanding when caring for the elderly and make sure you find ways to keep yourself strong and de-stress where and when you can. Also keep a strong hold onto your sense of humour – it has helped me on many occasions to bring me from tears to laughter!  In the next chapter I will look at ways we can lift the energies of our patients, ourselves and our homes and find joy and love in the situations we face.

Finally, if your parent does slip into dementia you will feel grief as you lose them, so allow plenty of personal care and comfort for yourself and know that you can only give your time and kindness – dementia needs specialised care and is, for most of us, a burden too far to carry alone.  in the next chapter there are several ways that you can bridge the gap between you and also bring them comfort.


To Summarise:

  • Ensure you are not harmed by any change in personality
  • Acknowledge that the insults are not personal but a sign of a person losing their power and control
  • Set your own boundaries of how much you can give and how much you can do. Let go expectations that they will be considerate of your time and energy.
  • If your parent has slipped back into childhood, then kindly and firmly treat them like a child with love and consideration.
  • Laugh when the opportunity to do so arises, its perfectly alright to do so and make everyone involved feel lighter.

When you are faced with the scariest and craziest situations try hard to hold onto your sense of humour and know things will change, time will move on and no matter how difficult and challenging your situation know that this too shall pass!

In my next article I will look at ways we can lift the energies of our patients, ourselves and our homes and find joy and love in the situations we face.

About the author: Anne Jones is an international author and key-note speaker. Her self-help books have been translated into 17 languages. With her down to earth style she helps her audiences and readers to find ways to cope with everyday problems and overcome the effects of trauma and loss. She gives practical advice on how to stay uplifted and energised as you face the challenges of life. See her website for further information.


You may also like...