Much depends on the parents’ personalities throughout life. If your parents were the bickering type and were always negative, this complaining may be the only way they know how to communicate. They may not even be aware how their attitude affects others. Since you grew up in their household you can ask yourself, “Is this how they always acted?”
Realistically, you aren’t likely to change their personalities. The physical and mental frustrations that go with aging are likely to intensify an already negative personality, so you already know what you are in for.
For some, this negative mindset or constant complaining is new behavior. Your mom was always sweet, almost timid. Now she’s a bearcat. Your dad was always jolly and supportive. Now he’s controlling and angry. When these changes occur, the adult child caregiver has a better chance to uncover the reason for the changed behavior and perhaps do something about it, so we’ll look at those reasons first.
Medications can cause personality changes
Just as an antidepressant can balance a person’s body chemistry to help the depressed person emerge from a depressed state, an antidepressant can, if it’s the wrong one for that person, make the person’s illness worse. Thus, if your loved one has started an antidepressant, don’t just assume things will get better. The drug may help quite quickly or it may take several weeks to have any effect. And that effect may be positive or negative. It’s possible that this drug is the wrong one for the individual taking it, and will need to be changed. Drugs should always be suspect in sudden personality changes
Here are some more reasons
Infections can be devastating to an elder: A bladder infection (UTI) can cause havoc with their personalities and other issues, even when there is no obvious physical sign that there is an infection present.
Pain makes nearly everyone crabby: If your elder was doing quite well, but suddenly changes into an irritable complainer, make sure the elder sees a doctor to check for painful changes in his or her health. Many elders “don’t want to complain,” so they don’t go to a doctor. Yet they unknowingly complain to their families all day long.
Maybe they feel they’ve earned it: When people are in the workforce or have more outside activity, they may feel they have to rein in their negative side. Once they are retired and/or are just around the house with less responsibility, they may feel they’ve “earned” the right to say exactly what they feel. And much of what they feel could be negative if they are bored or feeling unneeded. If your elder has this attitude, he or she may actually be able to understand what this switch of attitude is doing to the family. There may be hope that they can be changed.
Some people may be developing dementia: Memory issues are generally what people look for when they think of dementia, and of course memory issues will be part of dementia. However, some people are so good at covering up their memory problems – or have a spouse that covers for them – and memory problems can go unnoticed by family members until the issue is quite severe.
However the frustration the elder feels over memory problems, coupled with getting lost or not being able to recognize familiar objects can cause startling personality changes. Alzheimer’s disease, Pick’s disease and other dementias often bring about personality changes. These people need to see a doctor as soon as possible.
Some people were always controlling and abusive: Unfortunately, a significant number of adults grew up in dysfunctional families where they were abused, physically and/or emotionally, all of their lives. Just because their parents grow old doesn’t mean there will be any positive changes in the dynamics. Unless the abusers got counseling or other help along the way, they will likely be just as abusive to their adult children as they were to these same children when they were small.
What should caregivers do about non-stop complaining?
In the first instances, medical help is needed. Sometimes the complaining person will become much more pleasant once an infection is cleared up or some drug changes are made. If the person is developing dementia, there are now drugs that can help ward off the worst personality changes (in some people), for months or even years. Also, anti-anxiety medications and, for some people anti-psychotics, can make a difference. All avenues should be explored.
If you are a victim of parents who always abused you, you are now faced with some hard choices. You may be trying to “take the high road” and be a caregiver to your parents, even though they abused you as a child and still do. Sometimes, with counseling or other help, people can do this and do it well. Most of us want to love our parents and want love in return. Change can happen.
However, many people will never see their parents change. They still feel responsible for the elderly parents’ care, but the abuse just doesn’t stop. There are methods of detaching with love from the abusive parent when they act out, and sometimes, with counseling and help, people can learn these techniques and create an atmosphere where they can be a hands-on caregiver.
The mission of Minding Our Elders is to shine a light on the isolation often felt by caregivers and seniors and to give them a voice. The book Minding Our Elders: Caregivers Share Their Personal Stories was written to support the work of family caregivers. Founder and owner of Minding Our Elders Carol Bradley Bursack assures caregivers and seniors that they aren’t alone. Through speaking and writing, she strives to truly carry the message that help is available for them.