Tips for When Aging Parents Say Mean Things
Thank you to the reader who recently sent me this question:
“My elderly mother-in-law has gotten mean in the last few years. She’ll say mean things to people — mostly family members, but also others sometimes. I don’t think she even realizes how hurtful she’s being. Does this happen to elderly people often?”
In my experience, not all Golden Oldies “get mean” as they age, but some do.
I am not referring to pessimistic or difficult aging parents who are always whining and complaining, which I’ve written about previously. I am talking about our normally sweet and kind Golden Oldies who come out with mean statements occasionally. They might just say one mean or thoughtless thing that hurts us, but it’s that one sentence that sticks in our mind and heart for years to come.
An Example From My Own Family
My parents and I lived cross-country for nearly 20 years. Despite their only child and their only grandchild living 3,000 miles away, we could not convince them to move here. As my mom’s Alzheimer’s disease progressed, my father decided it was indeed time to live closer to us. We were ecstatic they were going to live in the same town and that we’d be able to have visits whenever we wanted — easily, without having to fly hours to do so. What could be better than that, after living apart for so many years?
One day about a year after they moved here, my Dad came out with the statement, “The worst thing we ever did was move to California!”
OUCH! I was stunned. It was like a slap in the face. I was too shocked to react to his words immediately. And even though we always had a close and loving relationship, I was extremely hurt. I still remember those words clearly — and don’t think I’ll ever forget them. But I have come to terms with it.
Why Do They Say Mean Things?
I believe our Golden Oldies lose their “filters” as they age. They think and speak much like young children, and just say what’s on their minds. They start to lose the ability to “censure” their words when those words are possibly rude or hurtful. They literally begin to speak without thinking.
If their words are kind, I say, “Good for them!” They’ve earned the right to speak what’s on their minds based on their experience and wisdom. But not always.
Tips on Handling Mean Words
You may not be able to change what your aging parents blurt out, but you can definitely control how you react to them.
- Delay your response to their words. Take a deep breath, walk into another room, count to 10, think about something positive. Whatever you do to calm yourself in other stressful situations, do now!
- Don’t snap back with an equally mean statement. Your reply could escalate the exchange. When you feel wounded, it’s often easy to fire back a nasty sentence, but in the long run it will not be helpful and may make matters worse. Try with all your might not to be defensive. I know it’s not easy!
- Realize their statements could be based on strong emotions. Respond to what their underlying feelings may be, and not the content of what your Golden Oldie said. Arguing with them logically probably won’t solve the deeper emotional issue. By not reacting on the spot when my Dad said the hurtful comment, I had time to analyze what he really meant.
- It’s OK to take a break. You can leave to give yourself time to cool off and deal with the hurt. This could be for a couple of minutes, hours, or even days if necessary.
- Try not to take their words personally. This was the hardest part for me. After all, I knew my Dad loved me and my family deeply, and was truly happy to be living nearby. He was simply idealizing their life in Florida, before my Mom was diagnosed and her memory loss began. He didn’t mean he hated living in California, but rather that he wished he could turn back the clock and be in Florida where they both had good health and an independent lifestyle.
- Be grateful — always. I try to remember at the difficult moments, how very lucky I am to have had them around at their advanced ages. (My dad died in 2005 at age 98 and my mom is now 99 years old.) So many people’s parents die when they are younger and adult children don’t have these later years to enjoy with their Golden Oldies. I also know that as a child or teenager I likely said hurtful things to them without realizing it, so now it’s my turn to get some of that karma back! It’s part of the circle of life.
What am I overlooking?
Have you found any other coping strategies that work for you when your Golden Oldies say mean things? Please share them in the comments below.
[NOTE: If there ever is a marked change in your aging parents' behavior, it may be due to a medical reason. Please be sure they are checked by their physician to rule out physical or drug-related reasons for inappropriate words, outbursts or actions.]