In the last newsletter we discussed depression in the elderly, but we haven’t yet touched on another of the most common emotions seen in the aging population—anger. Of course, anger can be a symptom of depression, or rather a masking emotion, put on in order to hide feelings that make an already vulnerable elder feel even more helpless, but often it’s simply a manifestation of the aging process itself.

No matter its cause, though, anger can be incredibly damaging to the caretaking process, taking its toll not only on the elder, but also on his or her caregiver and loved ones, and the relationship between them. It’s not always easy to be tender and understanding with someone prone to fits of rage over what seems like nothing.

The key to dealing with elder anger is in understanding where it comes from, and why it exists. Why are our elderly loved ones angry? Where does the stereotype of the crotchety, grumbling senior citizen come from?

A Walk in Another’s Shoes

Let’s say you’re older; you’re 85. You may have been one of those enterprising Americans who works even after retirement age, but force of will can’t keep someone in the workforce forever; you finally retired 12 years ago, at 73. You volunteered for a few years until you no longer had the strength to, and now you’re finding that your self-definition has drastically altered—even disappeared. Before, you were a lawyer, or a teacher, or a florist. Then you were a volunteer. Now what are you?

To compound that, your health is steadily failing. You may insist your hearing isn’t going, but you have to ask people to repeat things more often than in the past. You may have a hip replacement, or a pacemaker; perhaps you’re lucky and have escaped Alzheimer’s disease or congestive heart failure or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or any of the other more serious conditions that have robbed you of some old friends. Even in that case, you find that you tire much more easily, you’re often cold though you know you shouldn’t be, and even simple daily tasks you used to do without a second thought can leave joints aching. You find you have to get up multiple times during the night to relieve yourself, and you’re not as steady on your feet when you do so, prompting worries about falling (and potentially injuring your other hip). Additionally, things are starting to slip your mind more often. Is that an indicator of oncoming dementia?

Your doctor has prescribed pills to regulate your cholesterol, to alleviate your arthritis, to ward off countless diseases. You eat right and take vitamins to try to keep your body in top shape but it seems to keep failing. You finally gave in to your kids’ requests after a close call while driving at night, and gave up your license and your car.

Of course, that accession to safety has left you even more isolated than you were before. You have to wait for one of the kids or maybe a neighbor to take you to the grocery store, or have your groceries and prescriptions delivered. Perhaps, again, you’re lucky; like you, your spouse is in good health. But your parents and aunts and uncles are long gone, your siblings and cousins are falling victim to the conditions you avoided, and even your children are starting to suffer more in their middle age. You recognize more names in the obituaries than in the wedding announcements.

A Natural Reaction

As we discussed in the article about elderly depression in the last newsletter, such negative feelings aren’t unusual—and as we can see from the above example, they’re also not unreasonable. While it’s possible to live a full and happy life even after retirement and aging kick in, there are plenty of reasons for our elderly loved ones to feel blue.

To most people, depression simply means ‘sadness,’ but in reality, depression stems from a feeling of helplessness, of being stuck. When we feel like we’re in a rut or unable to change the things that are upsetting us, some people become what sad or apathetic—what most people mean when they say ‘depressed.’ Some people, however, react with an increased irritability or develop an unusually short temper.

How can you deal with this anger? Remember that your elderly loved one is going through major life changes, and many of them are unpleasant; try to react calmly, and never strike or yell at a senior (or anyone, really) when they show irritation or anger. Helping your senior find something they can invest their time and energy in can help assuage their irritability; help them see rediscover their self-definition, or create a new one!

Of course, when anger comes concomitant with another health issue, such as dementia—for instance, “sundowning” is aggression and confusion that often occurs in the late afternoon and evening among Alzheimer’s patients—simply offering them alternatives and understanding isn’t always enough. Remember to consult a doctor whenever you have concerns about your elderly loved one’s wellbeing.