When the filter is off
By Liz Foss
Just about everyone knows (or is) someone who “tells it like it is.” As people age, they often come to feel that there is no time for the things they might have tolerated when they thought they had all the time in the world.
It can be kind of refreshing to hear the plain, unvarnished truth from someone who is regarded as older and wiser. But when does the plain truth become hurtful words? And what can you do when you are the caregiver or the recipient, or both, of someone who just “lets it fly”?
People who were unkind and unfiltered when young aren’t going to be any different when they are older. It is more concerning when someone who has always been caring and considerate changes and starts saying whatever pops into his or her head with no consideration for the collateral damage.
If this behavior is new and out of character, be sure your loved one sees a medical professional. Conditions such as stroke or dementia can contribute to changes in personality. You can facilitate treatment for the underlying condition, which could reduce the offensive behavior.
Age and illness can intensify long-standing personality traits in some unpleasant ways: An irritable person may become enraged, an impatient person demanding and impossible to please. Unfortunately, the person taking care of the elderly parent is often the target.
If it there definitely is a stroke or dementia diagnosis, unfiltered speech to the point of swearing and inappropriate sexual advances may be seen in people who would never have acted that way while younger and healthier. Caregivers need to understand that the abuse cannot be taken personally. Often, the person can be distracted and redirected. At this point, explaining why they should not be talking this way won’t be effective.
If there is an Alzheimer’s diagnosis, as the disease progresses, people may say and do things that don’t appear to make any sense on the face of it, but which do represent an emotion that the person is feeling. Once a caregiver understands this, he or she can respond to the emotion rather than to the actual thing that was said. We all want to be understood, even when we can’t express ourselves coherently any more. If your loved one accuses you of plotting to steal all his or her &*^%$#^* money, it won’t do you any good to explain why that isn’t true or to be offended. Instead, the person may be feeling terrified at the confusing world he or she is experiencing now. An effective response might be to say, “I sure would be worried if I had worked as hard as you have. Tell me again about that company you managed.”
Developing an “emotional shield” can be life-saving. Basically, it’s consciously striving to become desensitized to bad words so they don’t mean anything.
By speaking calmly and using non-threatening body language while validating that you understand how upset your loved one is, you can usually de-escalate the situation. Don’t get caught up with trying to make sense of angry outbursts or illogical and irrational statements; argue the facts; or debate infuriating accusations. As soon as you can eliminate your need for logic and reason, it will be much easier to cope.
Liz Foss runs the Worcester area Seniors Helping Seniors, a non-medical, in-home care agency. Having worked as an accountant for nonprofits for many years, Foss now has her own business, which hires active seniors to help people remain in their homes for as long as possible. Seniors Helping Seniors provides services in Worcester County.
For more information, visit seniorshelpingseniors.com/worcesterarea, call (508) 885-6004 or email Foss at email@example.com.