How to Deal with Irrational Elderly Parents (11 Steps)

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We don’t always understand our parents, even when we are grown and have kids of our own. Yet, there will be times when our elderly parents become more irrational than usual. That’s just reality.

Whether it is due to a loss of mental faculties or aging, parents can become beyond difficult… and handling temper tantrums and illogical demands can make you feel like you’re losing your mind. Just who’s the parent, anyway?

So how do you deal with elderly parents who seem to have lost their minds or are regressing? Lucky for you, I’ve got some steps to help you (and them) cope with this difficult transition.

What Constitutes Irrational Behavior?

Irrational behavior is when you act or think in such a way that you abandon your grasp on rationality. You think or do without considering the world around you. Irrational people act in a way that often results in failed achievement because they don’t think or behave clearly. 

Instead of logically considering outside factors, an irrational person will simply do the first thing that pops into their head, without thinking of the consequences. Studies have shown that 77% of adult children find their aging parents to be stubborn or irrational. 

So how do you know your parents are being irrational? For me, it was a shock to hear my mom demand that my dad pick up the dog poop at 10 p.m. on a Saturday night, because she was convinced their tenant would step in it when he came home.

My dad, being in his late seventies, understandably told her that he’d do it the next day, and then a massive argument ensued (and I had to play peacemaker—again). 

While dad picks up the dog poop every day, what made the request so irrational was the time of day that mom demanded he do it, as well as her infantile temper tantrum when she couldn’t have her way. 

Irrational behavior is often when the person can’t see or understand why they are acting in a way that is not making sense

Reasons for Parents Acting Irrationally

Why do parents start to act irrationally when they age? 

There are several reasons why irrational behavior is so prevalent among the elderly, and you may identify with these when you think of your own elderly parents and their behavior. 

  • They Feel Afraid 

“Getting old isn’t for sissies.” This is one of dad’s favorite sayings, and it essentially means that it’s hard to get old. Elderly people face physical decline and mortality, and they become fearful since they can’t move as fast, react as quickly, or defend themselves. 

Like an old dog that growls at the younger dogs when they play rough nearby, older people are afraid they will be hurt or injured, so they act without thinking (often resulting in injuries like tripping over rugs when they walk too fast). 

If I’m not quick enough to do something for mom, she jumps up and dashes around, which has resulted in many a slip and fall. The reason for her irrational action? She’s afraid that she’ll be ignored or that she’s no longer useful. 

  • They Lack the Self-awareness of Younger Years

Older people also start to lose some basic self-awareness, such as not seeing their clothes are not washed or not smelling themselves when they haven’t bathed.

With their senses weakening, the elderly don’t receive as much sensory input (or receive incorrect sensory input) from their world. 

Without the right information about themselves and their environment, people can’t make logical decisions or behave in a sensible manner. 

  • They Are Experiencing the Onset of Dementia

We don’t fully understand what dementia is, and while it used to mean someone’s mind had “left the building,” we now know there are many different types of dementia that often have their roots in the lack of correct sensory input.

This is why people who are elderly can suffer hallucinations and form false memories. 

The result of this is that elderly parents can’t trust their own senses and their minds start to lose grip on what is real and what isn’t (or how something was meant vs what they interpreted it as).

Dementia becomes a reality that can quickly strip your parents of their logical faculties and lead to irrational behavior

  • The Changing World Is Scary to Them

My dad was born when there was no running water in many houses. His relatives were taken to school by ox or donkey cart in the small town where he grew up. So for him, the world has changed so much. 

Change is scary. We fear what we don’t understand, and when we act out of fear, it’s usually an irrational reaction. 

When my mom got her first mobile phone, she was already in her late fifties, and she kept checking the amount of call time she had remaining. It was her fear that she would run out and become disconnected from the people she cared about. Today, she is terrified of not having Facebook, which I tell her is irrational as she will survive without it if she needs to. Change scares her, and she adapts slowly. 

  • The Loss of Independence Frightens Them

Where your parents had been hard-working people their whole life, they are now on pension and earn a much smaller income with no way of increasing that income. (Very few pensioners are fortunate to have a passive income or ways to earn more each month.) 

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Irrational behavior is often when the person can’t see or understand why they are acting in a way that is not making sense. 

Becoming financially dependent on their children is a huge worry to parents, which can lead to brain fog and further mental decline. Combine their worries with failing health, and you can understand why your parents fear and worry so much. 

In a bid to still seem independent, elderly parents may throw tantrums and insist on ridiculous ideas that make no sense to you. Their irrational behavior is how they try to keep control of their world. 

How to Deal with Irrational Elderly Parents in 11 Steps

Dealing with your parents’ irrational behavior and reasoning may seem impossible. You are probably already fatigued and ready to throw in the towel. 

Before you decide to ship them off to a care facility (and even if you do), consider these steps to help you manage your parents better. 

Step #1. Get a Better Understanding

What seems irrational to you is completely rational to your parents. It’s not intentional that they behave in a manner that is in conflict with the world around them. Instead, try to understand what drives their behavior. Why are they behaving the way they do?

It is important that when you take this step, you really try to see things from their position. Try to view their actions and reasoning without judgment. Why do they say, do, behave, or think like they do? Can you understand where they grew up, the lives they had, the responsibilities and events they experienced, and the disappointments they endured? 

When you see them, you will begin to develop tolerance

Step #2. Get to the Bottom of Their Health

My mom refuses to see a doctor—ever. She hates being in a doctor’s room so much that she becomes argumentative and can cause quite a scene. Part of it is that she’s scared to find out about her health.

Her mom died of a heart attack, and her dad was supposed to get a triple coronary bypass surgery when he was 60. She is worried that she has inherited a heart condition. 

Hence, when mom isn’t feeling well, she tends to really act out, and this results in irrational behavior and reasoning. She doesn’t have a fatalistic outlook on life, but it may seem like it if you listen to her irrational statements

By finding out about her health issues, I could better understand her. 

What are some of the health issues your parents face? Do you know if they have blood pressure or diabetes issues? Parents usually hide these, hoping to outlive the problems, never realizing that these health issues (and their strange behavior about it) may be at the heart of what drives them from their children. 

Step #3. Work within Their Comfort Zone

When someone suffers cognitive decline, the body goes into a state of fight or flight so much more quickly than it would for a younger and mentally healthy person. Therefore, if your parents are suffering cognitive loss, they will become stressed and worried so much quicker. 

The best step you can take is to slow things down and work in the framework that is comfortable for your parents. Minimize surprises and changes, and try to create a soothing environment where they won’t feel as threatened or pressured. 

The human brain works best when it is peaceful and not pressured. When cognitive decline sets in, it becomes even more challenging for the brain to function in a stressful environment. So help your parents think logically by creating an environment where they can do so. 

Step #4. Avoid Reasoning with Them, But Reason with “the Why”

If you want to “win” an argument, you’ve already lost it with an elderly parent. There is no reasoning with someone who is irrational as this simply increases pressure and provokes more irrational reasoning and actions. 

Instead, stop reasoning with them, focusing the discussion on the “why” of something. So, instead of trying to convince them they are wrong, rather work on helping them understand why a decision is right

Step #5. Don’t Pick Fights

Yes, your parents are being illogical and they are truly irrational about wanting to paint their bedroom fuchsia pink. However, arguing about it won’t help you, and it will cost you when you need to convince them on issues such as their health and safety that do count. Pick the larger battles and let small stuff slide

Step #6. Connect, Validate, and Reassure

Make your parents feel seen and heard. All too often, elderly parents are at the bottom end of the emotional connection list. They feel like a burden and not a parent. Ensure you let them feel connected to you and your family.

Reassure them in word and deed that you have their best interest at heart, respect them, and want them to be happy.

When they feel seen, they will listen to you and react more calmly and rationally when you raise issues or enter into discussions with them. Remain positive and you will get a positive response.

Step #7. Call in Support for Them (and You)

If you need to convince your parents of their actions being illogical, it’s not going to help you to bring in more people telling them the same. Instead, call in your siblings to help by supporting your parents and helping them relax and think clearly. 

A supported person will feel more willing to consider change and alternative viewpoints. 

Parents often need help but don’t want to ask for it. Help them ask for help

Step #8. Use a White Lie

Nobody likes to lie (at least not an honest person). Yet, when dealing with an irrational person, it doesn’t help to pitch a rational argument (or any argument), so it may require the use of a white lie. 

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Minimize surprises and changes, and try to create a soothing environment where they won’t feel as threatened or pressured. 

If you want your parents to pack up and move with you because of a storm warning, don’t tell them their home won’t withstand the coming storm. Instead, tell them you are frightened that you may be called away and won’t be able to look after your children at home and need your parents to come help you or you won’t manage. 

Appeal to their nurturing nature. It can override their irrationality. 

Step #9. Talk to Them Like Adults

Often, when someone is irrational, we talk down to them. It happens subconsciously, but you need to consciously remind yourself to talk to them respectfully and like you are an adult speaking to another adult. 

You may feel like they’ve become like children, but treat them like your adult parents

Step #10. Check Their Medication

It may be easily overlooked, but elderly people can react very negatively to a change in medication. Sudden paranoia and irrationality can be the result of different medications (even a generic medication can spark a bout of irrationality). 

Ensure you know what medication your parents are on. Elderly people may take conflicting medications if they self-medicate, which can make the situation between you and them so much worse. 

Step #11. Support Yourself First

It is exhausting to deal with someone who is irrational. You have to be “extra-adult” with them: never angering, always forgiving, and always reasoning. One of the best coping strategies is to ensure you have support. 

Consider joining local support organizations that specialize in elderly care. You would be amazed by the tips that you can pick up there, and it’s a good place to vent a little (which you probably desperately need). 

By being able to offload a little, you will be more patient and calm with your parents, which will help you cope better with them. 

Final Thoughts on How to Deal With Irrational Elderly Parents

Dealing with your parents when they are irrational is challenging, especially when they live with you or you are responsible for their care. Irrational thoughts prompt irrational and often dangerous behavior, so take care to plan ahead for your parents to keep them and your family safe.

Encourage them to be mindful of their thoughts and actions before this becomes a serious problem for everyone involved. And don’t forget that self-care for your own sanity is crucial too.  You are only human… perhaps you have a partner and children of your own to care for as well?

Remember: following these three basic steps above all for dealing with your irrational parents, will help you take strides in the right direction:

  • Keep them and you calm
  • Don’t reason when you can encourage them
  • Monitor their health and medication

At the end of the day, you are a rational adult, and it’s up to you to manage your aging parents with care, dignity, and responsibility.  To ensure they have the best chance of functioning normally, create a peaceful space where they aren’t likely to stress easily.

You can read more about simple living tips to experience less stress to help your parents remain mentally healthy for longer, without you losing sight of what matters.

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