Senior Tantrums and Meltdowns, part 1

Every day at noon Martha always sits with her mom to watch the afternoon weather forecast; it was a tradition her mom always enjoyed and started many years ago after her husband passed away. But today she wants nothing to do with the afternoon weather forecast and she is angry at Martha for even suggesting the idea. “Why would I want to watch the weather when I can look out the window and see what is happening,” she snaps at Martha. The angry outburst has seemingly come out of nowhere and isn’t typical for Martha’s 91-year-old mother, but the outbursts have been occurring more and more frequently since she moved in with Martha last year.

Does this scenario sound familiar to you? If so you may have been the witness/victim of a senior meltdown or as some people like to call it an elderly tantrum. All phases of life include meltdowns—from the child in the checkout line who didn’t get their candy, to their father who has reached their last bit of patience. Meltdowns are a fact of life. Unfortunately, elderly meltdowns can be some of the hardest to deal with. The seniors we care for are wonderful adults whom we respect and who have made tremendous contributions to society and their family. Unfortunately many factors of aging can lead to an increase in meltdowns and as caregivers we must learn how to handle them, protect our loved one from their own anger, and protect ourselves from the angry words and actions they may take during their outburst.

Why Do the Elderly Have Meltdowns or Tantrums?

Many factors cause the elderly to have emotional meltdowns.

Diminished Physical Capacity—Remember they are stuck in a body that no longer functions as well as it once did. Things they were able to do for decades, they can no longer do except for with the help of a caregiver. Their independence has greatly diminished. They are no longer in control of many aspects of their life. Think about how you would feel if you went from being an independent adult to having to be cared for like a child.

Diminished Mental Capacity—For the elderly over 85, it is highly likely that they are experiencing some form of dementia. Per the Alzheimer’s Association 2012 Annual Report, almost half of Americans age 85 and over have Alzheimer’s. Even if the one you care for doesn’t have Alzheimer’s, they may have dementia. A muddled mind that is not able to correctly process information is a sure recipe for the occasional meltdown.

Medication—Some medications may also cause adverse side-effects that cause mental confusion or agitation. If you are the caregiver of an elderly individual who begins having senior meltdowns out of nowhere; discuss the issue with their primary care physician to make sure there are no medication issues.

How to Prevent Senior Meltdowns

As a caregiver, you will never be able to prevent all frustration that your elderly companion will experience. But there are some things that you can do that might help prevent a full blown meltdown.

Independence—Your elderly charge may be homebound or bedridden but try to give them as much autonomy and independence as possible. Ask for their input when possible. Let them help create the menu for the week’s meals. Get them involved in planning your entertainment for the evening. Seek out ways that they can express their independence that are appropriate for their physical limitations.

Redirect—Watch for the early signs of tension and anxiety. The signs are different for everyone but may include clenched hands, snapping at others, furrowed brow, pacing, suddenly withdrawing from what is going on, etc. As soon as you see signs of tension and anxiety, redirect them to an activity or discussion that is less stressful. If you are in the middle of an important discussion or activity that cannot be avoided, redirect for just a moment so that hopefully they can regain composure (stop to go to the restroom or to get a drink of water). If it is something that you can finish later simply say, “Let’s take a break and finish this tomorrow (or whenever is appropriate).”

Avoid—If a situation continually causes stress and anger with the person you care for, look for ways to avoid the situation or replace the activity with something that would cause less agitation. One elderly gentleman I know of continually got upset over the way his morning paper was delivered. His insightful night-time caregiver realized that just by getting up 15 minutes earlier she could fetch the paper before he woke up. Her 15 minutes of effort saved 2 hours of listening to his complaints and anger.

You will not always be able to prevent a senior meltdown or tantrum. In part 2 of our article we will discuss how to handle senior outbursts when they do happen.