How to deal with a difficult elderly parent


By Melissa Burton, Counselor, LMSW


“When mom’s health started to deteriorate she started taking everything out on me. I can never do anything right. I try so hard to please her and make her happy but she is constantly complaining and criticizing me. What can I do to protect myself from her wrath?”

-LifeLinks’ Client


Unfortunately, this is a common occurrence. Just as disgruntled teenagers tend to project their mood swings on their parents, so too can moody elders take their frustrations out on their caregivers. Anger and frustration can stem from a lack of control, depression, anxiety, and even dementia. While these feelings are a normal reaction to a normal part of life, how we as caregivers cope with these feelings can make a big difference.     


Why is this happening?

The need for control – barking orders for you to do this or that can be a way to compensate for your mom’s lack of control over her situation.

Grief anger can be a stage in the grieving process. As we age, grief starts to accumulate faster and faster. Death, transition, and decline in health and ability can be overwhelming. These losses may get expressed in negativity toward loved ones.  

Depression – symptoms of depression include anxiety, apathy, general discontent, guilt, hopelessness, loss of interest or pleasure in activities, mood swings, or sadness according to the Mayo Clinic. Many times someone dealing with depression takes these feelings out on others.

Safety – You may be the only safe and loving person in their life capable of putting up with all of this emotion that comes out sideways. I am not saying this is reasonable, but it is likely.

Genuine reason to be angry – Are you bossy? This may be a hard truth to swallow, but the sooner you realize that loosening the control grip will lead to a happier relationship, the better.

Need to be heard – Empathy is not about change. Sometimes people don’t want you to try to fix the situation, they only want you to acknowledge how unpleasant the situation is. This concept always reminds me of a hilarious youtube video It’s Not About the Nail. It hits the nail on the head… pun intended.


How to engage

Start to pay attention to the details. Understanding what triggers to avoid can help ease the tension. Ask yourself:


  • When – Is the time you are visiting optimal? Is your mom in a better mood in the afternoon vs. morning? Also consider that you may be spending too much time together.
  • What – Are certain topics prone to upset her?
  • Who – Should you go with other people to help buffer the situation?
  • Where – Should you take her out or stay at home? Is she critical of your home or driving? Is it better to stay on her “turf”?
  • Why – Listen to what is being said. Acknowledge and empathize with her experience.
  • How – Set some personal boundaries. Gently say no when necessary, leave or call in extra support. Hiring a professional care manager to assist in the day to day tasks can take the burden off of you.


Pick your battles. You don’t have to show up to every argument you’re invited to.

– Mandy Hale


How to cope


  1. It’s ok to feel anger – know how to channel it  
    “I feel so guilty I almost wish this was over.”
    Having a “death wish” can be a normal reaction to the stress and resentment that comes with caring for a difficult loved one. It is not wrong to feel this anger, it is only wrong to express it in harmful ways. Recognizing caregiver burnout and seeking help is critical to avoid the harmful effects of burnout and anger.  For tips on how to deal with stress check out our blog – How to Handle Caregiver Stress One List at a Time.

  2. Go for a run, watch a movie, listen to loud music. In other words, find a healthy way to decompress and make sure to take time for yourself and take a time out if your anger is getting out of control.
  3. Seek emotional support – Talking to others can help normalize your feelings and experience. Many people find it helps to talk to others through support groups, online chat groups or in a church community. Knowing there are others who have been through this can be a lifesaver.
  4. Counseling is another great way to process your feelings and experiences. Having a safe and confidential space to open up about your experiences both in the present and from the past can lead to peace and healing.

  5. Reevaluate the situation – You may need to consider if the current situation is sustainable. For example, if live with your parent you might find you can not establish healthy boundaries. In this case, it might be time to ask yourself if living together is the right choice. Check out our Memory Care-Is it really Time? to know when moving is appropriate when dementia is involved.


You are not responsible for other people’s happiness only your own!




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