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It’s Not About You!


Understanding Senior Behavior

Children who become caregivers for their aging parents often find themselves facing behavioral changes. Sometimes seemingly overnight, or perhaps occurring more gradually, their once calm, loving parent becomes blunt, even mean — or possibly quite fearful.

But it isn’t only adult children as caregivers who may notice bewildering behavior. One elderly woman began heaping verbal abuse on a visiting nurse who was attempting to change her husband’s wound dressing, interfering with the process and insisting the nurse was doing it incorrectly.

What causes such shifts in demeanor, and what is the best way to respond? Anyone who works with seniors — including reverse mortgage professionals — needs to be aware of these issues.

When a senior begins acting out of character, the first priority is to rule out an organic cause, e.g., dementia. An abrupt change in behavior, such as a mild-mannered senior suddenly starting to swear or becoming enraged with no provocation, may indicate a change in their mental or physiological state — but it could just as easily signify frustration with the many-layered loss of control that tends to accompany aging.

In the example above, the nurse recognized that her patient’s wife felt excluded and helpless, and took her aside to explain that she understood her feelings, and was there to help her give her husband the best possible care. Once the woman felt “seen”, she calmed down, and the R.N. was able to complete her wound care visit satisfactorily.

Sometimes an elder will be verbally or emotionally abusive to a caregiver, child or other person with whom they feel safe enough to do so. They may not even think they’re being offensive; just venting their pain or grief to someone they trust to “hold” their feelings. So if a senior you know says, “Mind your own business!” a little forcefully, thank them for trusting you enough to be honest, back off from whatever you were discussing, and don’t take it personally.

Of course, if they say this in a reverse mortgage setting, it would be wise to schedule another meeting at a later date to ascertain whether the outburst has any direct bearing on the HECM process — and to assess whether this senior is, in fact, a good candidate to age in place. If so, what additional support services might be needed?

We each grow older differently, yet the aging process, however joy-filled, does by definition necessitate loss. Friends and family members die, people move away, bodies become less agile. Perhaps most distressing of all, the opinions and wisdom accumulated over a lifetime are frequently brushed aside.

The gift you can offer seniors who may be behaving in an unexpected manner is to recognize that it’s not about you, and that, barring any physical or mental impairment, your best response is one of understanding, care, and attention — which may be exactly what the senior is trying, however inappropriately, to obtain.


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  1. It’s always been about the customer, not the sales person. I might also suggest that the industry reduces its usage of “senior.” As the average age of RM borrowers continues to drop, please refrain from using age based labels.

  2. Thank You Amara. This was a very helpful and reflective article.

  3. I took the Certified Senior Advisor classes years ago. One of the many things I learned was that a bladder infection in a senior will show itself as dementia. This was very important when my mother did not recognize me one day and I had the doctor check and it was a bladder infection.

  4. Amara,

    It is presenting the practical issues related to those over 62 which makes your blog so valuable to us. This article hit on many levels and was very practical. Your ability to describe and apply your experience and knowledge to situations that many of us are not regularly exposed to makes what you write a great, informative, interesting, and useful read.

    When I first got into this business a former school teacher who was about 25 years than I was, suddenly got mad at me and told me to get out of her house. She was yelling at me. Somehow I thought I had offended REALLY her.

    A week later she called and apologized for throwing me out of her house but stated her stomach pain from recent surgery was so severe she just couldn’t take hearing what I was saying anymore and needed to get to bed to try to get relief. She wanted a HECM and was much better now.

    This was one of those feel good cases where the HECM helped this woman get sufficient food, get her utilities turned back on, have a very small amount of money for a few extras like a perm and manicure once a month from a beauty college. She pinched her pennies and used her HECM tenure payouts very prudently.

    I wished I had gotten my CSA or at least read this article before that experience.

    Keep up the good work!!

  5. Thank you, Barbara. I agree; I don’t like the word “senior” either, especially now that I am one! While it’s a positive term when we’re young (as in, college senior) this perspective shifts at the other end of the life spectrum.

    What word(s) do you prefer? Sometimes I write “older adults” or mature adults, though we do need to somehow identify the group we are referencing, just as when we say “teenagers” or “twenty-somethings”. I recently published an article called “Over the Speed Limit”, which is one of my favorite terms for those 55+!

  6. Walter,

    Thank you SO much for this invaluable addition! Yes, illness can manifest as mental impairment in the elderly, who may not recognize the connection at all! I really appreciate you pointing this out, and am so glad you knew enough to take your mother to her doctor. It also reinforces that we are one multidimensional, complex being: physical, mental, emotional and spiritual.

  7. Cynic,

    Thank you for this story, which illustrates the point of the post beautifully. I’m glad it worked out well for all involved. I once had a dear older friend speak sharply to me as well, which shocked and upset me ~ until she explained later a scenario almost exactly as you describe: that she needed to get off the phone because her hip hurt and she wanted to lie down!

    I’m glad to know the CSA program is so thorough. Perhaps it ought to be required training for HECM professionals.

  8. Amara, here is an alternative term that always gets a chuckle:

    “Chronologically Gifted”

  9. Very well said Amara! Please continue to share your wisdom.

  10. Dick,

    Are you sure you’re not quoting me? 🙂 I reference this term in Over the Speed Limit, and I’ve not heard it anywhere else. Discovered about 5 years ago when driving through Colorado. A small health food store offered a 20% discount for the “chronologically gifted,” and I’ve adored the word ever since. I also used it an earlier piece about turning 50.

    Always appreciate your insight and humor, my friend!

  11. Robin and Janet ~

    Thank you for your kind words. If you have suggestions for topics you’d like to see covered, please email either me or Shannon and we’d be delighted to explore them!

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