How can one learn to be more patient and kind with an elderly family member who has a difficult personality?
November 23, 2008 3:34 PM   Subscribe

How can one learn to be more patient and kind with an elderly family member who has a difficult personality?

I have an elderly family member who I've always had a very hard time getting along with. We've always been like oil and water. We just don't mix. She is pretty similar to Tony's mom on the Sopranos: negative, hostile and set in her ways.

However, as she gets older it's come upon family members such as myself to become caregivers. The struggle comes from caring for someone for whom I never cared much and who I feel bad when I'm around.

How can I learn to be above these difficult feelings? I'd like to be more patient and learn to be loving even when I feel that this isn't returned. I'm wondering what has worked for others and if you have any specific techniques or suggestions. Thanks.
posted by mintchip to Human Relations (8 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
I had difficult elderly relatives. Keep in mind that they are people, with feelings (although it doesn't seem like it sometimes), and that there is probably a reason that they are the way they are. When dealing with my difficult relatives, I would avoid subjects of confrontation, and if they were nasty to me I would not react, and if necessary leave the room. Sometimes it came down to just nodding and smiling. I know it seems oversimplified, but I hope this helps, and if you have more specific questions feel free to send me a message.
posted by bolognius maximus at 4:05 PM on November 23, 2008

Remember that this is the time that you have left with her. This time, however difficult, is the last time you will have to find out more about her than the gruff annoying person you see her as today. Many elderly folks like telling stories about their lives. So ask her. Her favorite teacher, first boyfriend, best vacation... whatever might get her talking. And then just listen.
posted by kimdog at 4:20 PM on November 23, 2008 [1 favorite]

Try asking her questions about her early life and times--before you were born, so you're not a factor--to move the conversation away from whatever is awful today to whatever was interesting or wonderful long ago. Listening to the answers to open-ended questions ("What was it like...?") shows care and patience and may even be interesting... if only because you can figure out how she evolved into the difficult personality she became.

For ideas, check out web sites that help people conduct oral histories or record folklife like this one. In fact, if you decide that you're going to put together her oral history and bring a tape recorder, it gives you a project together and puts her in a position (being taped for posterity) that obliges her to be polite, if not nice. Good luck.
posted by carmicha at 4:20 PM on November 23, 2008 [1 favorite]

Totally depends on the person - people can be difficult in different ways. But a few things that have worked for me before: (1) Do nice things for the person, which somehow makes you feel differently toward them and might soften them. Touch their arm and smile when you talk to them, or a similar gesture. (2) Ask them about their history, etc. Usually once I learn what made them the way they are, I'm able to have at least some compassion. (3) If a person is competitive, trying to be better than me, I've learned to let them "win." Competitive people are disconcerted when you don't take the bait. Instead, find points on which you can agree with them, show respect, pay a compliment. This also works for negative people. It's kind of a fine line, but you should be able to find a way to empathize without joining in their griping. (4) Sometimes it can work to ask them direct questions, like "Are you very unhappy?" (5) Pray for them. If you believe in praying, this really can give you a heart for them. (6) Before you are with them, imagine (role-play in your mind) the kind of person you want to be with them. A person is always more successful with something they've practiced ahead of time.

It sounds like you're already working on the first one, if you're not treating them like a burdensome duty (even though they are).
posted by onemorething at 4:23 PM on November 23, 2008

It really depends on your ability to "turn the other cheek."

I had an elderly relative (related by marriage) who was supremely difficult. She thought she knew everything, would trash talk other relatives of mine (who are dead and not around to defend themselves), would spout her ridiculous opinions, and in general make it clear that I was not sufficiently appreciative of everything she had done for me--which was not a lot, since she was only tangentially involved in my life. I swallowed a lot of my feelings, and sincerely tried to be nice while she was dying of cancer/emphysema, and I do wish that I had told her to eff off before she died.
posted by computech_apolloniajames at 5:48 PM on November 23, 2008

Don't be a doormat. Respectfully stand up for yourself, show her you can give it as well as take it, all with a good sense of humor.
posted by hermitosis at 7:04 PM on November 23, 2008

I guess some of this depends on what you mean by caregiving. And my thinking on this is informed by my mother, who is an absolute vortex of negativity and faux-helplessness in addition to needing care. What worked for me when she hit a hard spot and needed to not live alone was, first, realizing that taking her would ruin my life and was not an option, and then putting her in a home.

One thing to remember is that the family doesn't have any duty to be her caretakers yourselves. A home or assisted-living place is a real possibility, and one you shouldn't be shy about. You know her and we don't; if she's been hostile and negative since she was 30, she's unlikely to change. In which case, her life is her life, and you need to be careful to make sure that the end of her life doesn't fuck up yours by throwing heaps of awful negativity on you every day. Anyway, you and the rest of the family can make sure she's being taken care of without being her caregivers herself. It will be amazingly expensive and it will burn through her assets like a flamethrower on kleenex.

Another thing to remember is that if you have tasks to perform in caring for her, they're just tasks. You might have to do her bills or clean her place. But you don't have to feel lovey thoughts while you do it, so long as you do the job. You don't have to pretend to just love her to pieces while you take her to the doctor as long as you take her to the doctor. Just do the job, and maintain civility until you're pushed beyond it. If there are different jobs to do and there are other family members who like her, or dislike her less, angle for you to do more of the gruntwork that doesn't put you in conversation with her instead of being the person who minds her while something else happens.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 8:58 PM on November 23, 2008

I'd like to be more patient and learn to be loving even when I feel that this isn't returned.

Sometimes, all you can do is what needs to be done. If you have accepted responsibility to provide certain types of care for this person, do the job you have to do and do it well.

Don´t pressure yourself to feel a certain way. You feel how you feel. You don´t have to feel a certain way to fulfill your responsibilities. Be proud of yourself for being a person who can step up and do what needs to be done.
posted by yohko at 5:42 PM on November 24, 2008

« Older Best way to switch a virus-riddled Eee running XP...   |   cheap auto liability insurance Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.