Grumpy Old Men (And Women)
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Laura’s Housecleaning Adventure
I took yesterday off because my husband and I needed to clean his mom’s house. Fortunately I used comp time from a conference I attended recently and didn’t have to spend a vacation day. His mom isn’t physically (or, really, mentally) able to clean, and she fired the one cleaning service she had. Possibly because of her dementia, she’s letter herself and everything else go.
My brother-in-law is coming in from California next week to both celebrate his mom’s birthday and help my husband investigate assisted-living options, so we decided to go up there and just go at it.
I actually like to clean, but what a test of patience! She complained in that horrible, querulous way old people have. She complained about her poor son taking too long in the supermarket shopping for her company, she complained about him spending too much money (though she has more than enough), she complained that she wanted us to leave, she complained about him having the temerity to change the sheets . . .
Finally I lost it. I had vacuumed the two-story house from top to bottom, folded laundry, fixed lunch, dusted, polished silver, and cleaned two bathrooms, and my husband had been working equally hard. I just snapped, “How about saying, ‘Thank you, it looks nice?’”
I still don’t think she understood what I was getting at. She’s always been kind of hard to deal with, and they say old age magnifies people’s negative traits. Yes, I know dementia makes people combative. I’m glad we were able to help – but the elderly can be infuriating.
When the film Grumpy Old Men debuted in 1994, the premise was funny. Two elderly neighbor men putting on their best stereotypical crochety ‘tudes, sniping at each other and at others around them. It was so funny, in fact, that a sequel soon followed – Grumpier Old Men. More guffaws. Leave it to Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon.
Bob Hope’s former staff writer Martha Bolton would say this humorous take is healthy: “I’m convinced some things happen to us for any good drama, life has to have a bit of comic relief to ease the tension and rejuvenate our spirits.”
In a fictional world these behaviors that my friend and fellow caregiver Laura would classify as querulous (“given to complaining; peevish” – I looked it up) can provide a brief repose and tension relief from real-world troubles. But live it with your parent in real time, and the humor turns sour faster than a gallon of milk in August’s midday sun.
There may be good reason for the grumpy stereotype, though. Like most generations, it is rooted in some fact. When you think about one of its contributors, you’ll realize it’s not a surprising result.
Consider that in today’s Western culture we attach few positive attributes to aging. Unlike the Eastern cultures, we don’t innately respect aged experience. In fact, we eschew outward evidences of aging, stave it off like the plague, hide it at all costs. The antiaging industries of Botox and cosmetic surgeries and wrinkle creams and hair dyes and age-spot removers and spa treatments and exercise equipment are booming. Advertisers unabashedly court the young market. Their message? Look young. Think young. Be young. Then you will be most valuable to society.
If we allow culture to devalue our elders, how can we expect our parents to feel anything other than querulous when there is nothing more they can do to deny aging’s merciless process of decelerating their bodies and minds?
How Much of the Stereotype is True?
According to psychologist Alice Domar, the aging process can initiate several emotional responses in care receiver and caregiver. She says whatever coping mechanisms we’ve created through life as we’ve dealt with change will be magnified when we’re confronted with age-associated change:
They have lost the [people] they once were. They are likely to be grieving the loss of their ability to do the things they used to do. This grief manifests itself in many different ways. Symptoms of grief range from shock and disbelief, to denial that change is taking place, to depression, loneliness, and a sense of isolation. More visible emotions, such as panic, hostility, and an inability to function day-to-day, are also possible. Stubbornness, regression, and even rage can result from a sense of losing one’s former self. (6)
Nurse Meghan says she noticed these emotions in her mother-in-law. She lists “fear, lack of trust, less ability to assimilate info, and less faith in God’s ability to take care of her.” But Meghan makes an observation: As her mother-in-law exhibited these traits, Meghan and her husband experienced the “developing emotional responses” of “impatience and frustration. Where was her faith? Why didn’t she trust us?”
Perhaps you, as I, can relate. As the care receiver becomes agitated, we caregivers naturally respond by fighting back – escalating the issue. It’s what Laura experienced in the story that opened this chapter. Even the most patient caregiver is tested to the limit when bombarded by wave after wave of incoming verbal – or physical – blasts. Eventually, the pressure needs to be vented to stave of a full-scale explosion.
Understanding that grief over lost independence may be at least partially to blame for a loved one’s tirade may help temporarily, but we’ll need more effective coping mechanisms if we’re to find long-term pressure valves.
Easing the Tension
In 2002 the National Institutes of Health held a “Successful Aging” seminar. In synthesizing the information presented at the seminar Dr. Judy Selerno, who directs the NIH’s National Institute on Aging, concluded, “Disease and disability are not inevitable consequences of aging. “In other words, simply seeing signs of aging doesn’t have to lead down a slippery slope of hopelessness or despair.
In support of Salerno’s synthesis, University of Wisconsin professor Gloria Sarto told the conference that attitudes like self-esteem, quality relationships, defining life as meaningful, and exercising some independence can help people age well. “Find something positive in the face of adversity,” she said. (7)
If these findings are true, we caregivers can contribute toward more positive attitudes in our parents.
Helping Them Feel Loved
One of the first ways we can do this is by helping them feel loved. Since our personal methods of expressing and receiving love may differ from those of our parents, psychologist Gary Chapman’s book The Five Love Languages is helpful to study. Chapman’s premise is that individuals use different ways, different languages, to express and receive love. It may be through words that I feel most loved. It may be through quality time, acts of service, giving of gifts, or tender touch.
For example, if words are my mother’s primary love language, then spoken affirmation will lift her spirits. But if her love language is quality time, and I stuff her needs into scraps of time in my schedule – then even if I meet all her physical needs and say nice things to her when I’m with her, she’ll feel unloved and she’ll be more likely to lash out in anger. Feeling she wasn’t receiving enough focused attention, one woman I know took a swing of her cane at her caregivers. Her basic needs were being met, but she wasn’t “feeling the love.”
Helping Them Feel Trustworthy
Experts agree another way to help parents through the stages of aging is by affording them as much decision-making participation as possible. With advanced dementia patients, this won’t be as feasible. But in general, the more we respond to their needs as team players rather than bosses, the calmer responses we’ll receive from them. It’s a matter of helping them feel that their physical limitations have not robbed them of the credibility they’ve worked a lifetime to establish.
In an article titled “Talking Points,” Dr. Carol Anderson writes,
When talking with your aging parents, it’s important to use an approach that lets Mom or Dad know that you want to understand him or her better and that you are not trying to take over his or her life. Your approach should show a willingness to work together. . . . It’s also important to emphasize Mom’s or Dad’s strengths rather than dwell on any weaknesses. (8)
Helping Them Feel Valuable
That last bit of counsel leads to another way we can have a positive impact on our parents’ moods – by dwelling on their best assets. It’s a biblical concept. Paul writes, “Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worth of praise” (b NLT). I resonate with that. I’ve often responded better to circumstances beyond my control when someone couched his comments with an acknowledgement of what I’d done right – rather than diving into a litany of my shortcomings.
Often it’s our words that emphasize our parents’ strengths, but sometimes words seem empty without harmonious actions. Think back to Ruth and Naomi. Remember how bitter Naomi was in chapter 1? She said things like “My life is much too sad for you to share, because the Lord has been against me!” (v. 13 NCV). What comforted her at that moment was Ruth’s persistent presence, along with her faith-filled words: “Don’t ask me to leave you and turn back. Wherever you go, I will go; wherever you live, I will live” (v. 16 NLT).
Changing Ourselves (If Not Our Loved Ones)
Okay. So that’s the best-case scenario. But what if old age has magnified a parent’s already-sour disposition, exacerbating a lifelong painful relationship? What if no positive talk or loving action can help? That’s when another savvy life principle kicks in: even if we can’t change someone else’s behavior, we can still change our own.
Curbing Our Own Querulous-ity
When I was in high school preparing to travel with a summer singing group, we were required to memorize a long list of Scriptures. Most were for others’ benefit: teaching us to lead others in a salvation prayer, to pray for others’ needs, to encourage people toward godliness. But one verse was especially for us – to make the summer pass uneventfully (if you don’t count trailer tire blowouts or the van overheating.) The verse?: “Do everything without complaining and arguing (NLT). Funny, that has stayed with me for twenty-five years. Not that I’ve always practiced it. But I’ve always been convinced of its wisdom. It’s parallel to another Pauline admonition: “If possible, on your part, live at peace with everyone” ( HCSB).
As we’re going about changing our attitudes toward cantankerous care receivers, consciously laying down our rights to dispute with them may be one immediate answer. That much depends on us. I remember a psychologist describing this choice to me years ago. He said that in every crisis we have three options: put up our dukes and fight, run the other way and flee, or lie back and ride out the wave.
Later, when we discuss becoming our parents’ advocate in medical situations, we’ll look into the put-up-your-dukes option - because fighting for their best interests may be lifesaving. But fighting against our parents is counterproductive.
Fleeing, at least as a long-term solution, probably isn’t an option. (Although short-term flight respites are necessary.) So consciously choosing to go with the flow may be the most feasible choice.
Don’t you feel a chink of the chain binding you fall away? Options and choices return control to us – and that’s a good thing.
Turning to Prayer and Friendship
Whether or not we’re dealing with a difficult parent, we’ll need praying friends to help hold us accountable and offer a semblance of sanity. Jill Briscoe writes in Thank You for Being a Friend, “We can reach out and take the hand of whoever is nearest to us and stand against [Satan] in the name of Jesus, our Captain and Savior. We can pray! Whenever we do we will experience and know a closeness with those we pray with that we didn’t know before – it’s called ‘prayer friendship.’”
And, if you’re dealing with the best-case scenario of a believing parent who doesn’t mean to be querulous, Jill says, “Prayer is a place where even relatives, like a mother and daughter, can become closer friends.”
Another Look at Humor
We may yet have one more choice in our arsenals. Martha Bolton writes in her book When the Going Gets Tough, The Tough Start Laughing, “With everything that may come our way, we can still have jo. Not a joy that denies or discounts pain, but a joy that wells up inside of us in spite of it.”
Years ago, when I was managing editor of The Standard, I saw this modeled by an interview I did for a cover story in our magazine. Dorothy was a widow succumbing to Alzheimer’s disease. Her daughter Roberta, the mom of teenagers, couldn’t dedicate full-time to her mother’s care. So God led her to Mary, who was working her way through college to prepare for career missions. Mary needed a home; Dorothy needed a companion. The situation was ideal.
I interviewed Mary, and she told this story that, while sad, became a source of lighthearted banter for Roberta and the caregiving team:
There were times when Dorothy would break out into the song, “Chatta, chatta, chatta, chatta, ching, ching, ching,” and dance the Charleston. She must not have remembered that she was pushing ninety, because she would kick so high she’d almost knock herself over!
I would come home to all of the meat from the freezer defrosting for dinner, or the laundry room would be flooded because she would hear the sound of the washing machine and think it was broken, so she would pull all of the wash out during the rinse cycle.
And of course, there were the numerous occasions when Dorothy would move all the patio furniture into the house, because, she reasoned, furniture didn’t belong outside.
In all these situations, Mary had a choice – and, young woman of wisdom that she was – she chose to lay back, go with the flow, and have a good belly laugh.
God, some days I don’t see the humor in my situation. I wish life would roll back to a time before old age began encroaching on our family. I need You to equip me with the words and deeds to build up my parent and encourage her to feel loved and valued. Help me respond in love, rather than anger – no matter what frustration she tosses my way.
- Read Gary Chapman’s The Five Love Languages to find clues to how each member of your household, including your care receiver, will feel most loved.
- Make an effort to help your parent participate in his own care.
- Try to identify the humor in a situation that is escalating to tirade status.
- Enlist trusted friends as prayer partners to support you.
6. www.strengthforcaring.com; Understanding Our Loved One’s Emotions as They Age.”
7. http://www.nih.gov/news/WordonHealth/jun2002/succesfulaging.html; “Keys to Successful Aging: Good Habits and Positive Attitudes” by Carla Garnett.
8. Dr. Carol Anderson, “Talking Points,” http://www.strengthforcaring.com/manual/28/95/talking-points.html.
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