Joe is concerned about his 68-year-old father.
Dad is more forgetful. Henry doesn’t remember the stories that Joe tells him. But what concerns Joe the most is his father’s moodiness, irritability and anger. He seems to be more emotional lately, and frequently says things to Joe that are hurtful. Dad doesn’t think before he speaks. He appears very different to Joe.
Henry has a few health problems — diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol. Otherwise, he’s reasonably healthy. Joe’s worried. What’s going on with his dad?
Aging does not affect adults equally. One 60-year-old can look and act like an 80-year-old, while one 80-year-old may be spry, sharp and healthy — partly due to genetics, lifestyle and some old-fashioned luck. I was fortunate, as both of my parents lived to a ripe, old age and had all of their faculties intact.
Joe is both worried about his dad and disappointed. He misses his younger father, who was more emotionally available. He wonders what will happen in the next 10 years. Joe finds himself becoming more inpatient with Henry, too. He doesn’t like the way he reacts to his dad.
As we age, cognitive changes are normal. Our short-term memory worsens, and it’s more difficult to remember where we put our glasses, our coffee cups or our keys. It’s frustrating for older adults to put their keys down, open the newspaper, and then completely forget where we put them. Names of people we know or recently met seem to fly out of our minds.
Our frontal lobes, responsible for inhibiting acting on our impulses, starts to shrink. We notice older adults saying and doing things that they might not have said or done when they were younger.
These changes are all normal, but are often disturbing.
But some older adults, especially with certain health problems, may have more advanced cognitive problems, called mild cognitive impairment. The symptoms include more frequent forgetfulness, such as important events or appointments, losing a train of thought or thread of a conversation, feeling overwhelmed by making decisions, becoming more impulsive or demonstrating increasingly poor judgement.
Family and friends start to notice these changes. Older adults with these symptoms may experience depression, irritability, aggressiveness, anxiety or apathy. The good news? These symptoms may not progress to full-blown dementia. But they can also precede more problems ahead. Without an evaluation, it may be difficult to know if your family member is experiencing the normal changes associated with aging or is having more significant problems.
So what can adult family members do?
Be patient. Joe’s dad is not being difficult on purpose. He may be struggling with cognitive changes that are probably causing him both increased frustration and anxiety — both of which can make his symptoms worse.
Don’t take offense. And if you do, be quick to forgive. (That’s a lesson from my 98-year-old good friend, Dixie.) It’s not necessary to take offense if your parent says something that’s critical or negative in a moment of frustration. Let it go.
Take care of yourself. Sometimes that may mean keeping a little distance from your relative, letting go of other obligations or simply improving your own self-care. It’s easier to become grumpy with your parents if you are tired, hungry or stressed. Taking care of yourself may also mean having a heart-to-heart talk with your parent about your concerns.
Be the best son or daughter that you can be. If you cultivate patience, don’t take offense and take good care of yourself, you will be the best son or daughter that you can be. And when you are, you will feel better about yourself.
Paul Schoenfeld is director of The Everett Clinic’s Center for Behavioral Health. His Family Talk Blog can be found at www.everettclinic.com/family-talk-blog.