How to Handle Elderly Bad Behavior

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Does the idea of correcting your aging parent, no matter how justified seem a little strange to you? After all, it wasn’t that long ago that you were receiving their correction. But, how do you appropriately handle elderly bad behavior?

I’ll be honest, when we moved in with my MIL I never expected to be in a role that I would need to handle her bad behavior beyond apologizing to offended friends. More and more, I realized that her behavior did sometimes require some intervention on my part. This intervention is perhaps one of the hardest aspects of role reversal that I have encountered for several reasons.

  • It can appear as correction to someone not accustomed to caregiving for people with any kind of mental impairment. It’s rarely appropriate to correct an adult and the decisions they make. Seeing me or my husband “correct” my MIL has caused many to raise eyebrows and even verbally object.
  • There is very little I can do if my intervention is refused by my MIL. With my kids I am the *ultimate* authority. With my MIL if she says “no” and absolutely refuses my help, that’s it. I can’t force her to acquiesce.
  • It makes it hard for me to be respectful and remember she is an adult even though her mind doesn’t always allow her to think or act like one. It’s a tricky tight-rope caregivers are required to walk. We have the same duty (and even “job description”!) to our adult charges as we would in our parental roles with our children. But, they are still an adult and deserve to be treated like one whenever possible.

Does the idea of correcting your aging parent, no matter how justified seem a little strange to you? Learn how to appropriately handle elderly bad behavior.

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When should you intervene?

Before we get into the different types of intervention, we first must understand when it is appropriate. While there are many times my MIL has displayed teenage-like (or even toddler!) behavior, it is important that I always remember she is an adult. While, in some respects it helps me to think of her as my “fourth child” I must remember that correction, for children and adults, is for two primary purposes health & wellbeing and learning.

Related Post: My Sister, Nana | Parenting Your Parent

An adult with Dementia or any number of other mental impairments/disabilities has no capacity for learning new behavior. Therefore my motivation for intervention must be health & well-being.

Appropriate Intervention

Natural Consequences

When my MIL refuses to wear her underwear and then urinates all over her comforter, the natural consequence is that she has to wait for it to be laundered before it’s replaced.

She loves her comforter and almost always refuses alternate covering.

“I know it’s my fault and I should have been wearing my underwear, but could you please give it back to me?,” she pleads for her “captive” comforter’s release.

I always explain to her that I am working on getting it washed and dried. I try to assure that it will be done “soon”.

In this instance, there is no need to “remind” her of the importance of putting on underwear or even comment on her lack of clothing. The natural consequence is sufficient.

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Time-out/Removal from the situation

My children are young and can get very loud. This sometimes aggravates my MIL and she will attempt to silence them. My children (six and three) struggle with being respectful to someone they consider their peer. This results in tremendous frustration and often a yelling battle between Nana and the kids.

In instances such as these, I will highly suggest that my MIL return to her room, turn on her TV to drown out the noise from the kids, and let me handle their correction.

Usually, after a few minutes alone to decompress, the situation is forgotten and life returns to normal.

Related Content: Why Caring for Aging Parents is Easier with Kids


My MIL struggles at this point with intelligent adult conversation. I was speaking the other day to a friend about actors and their movies.

The conversation went something like, “You know ‘that actor’ in ‘this movie’ was the same one that played in ‘that movie’.”

My MIL was familiar enough with the actor and wanting to contribute to the conversation began loudly discussing her lust after this actor.

Naturally, things became uncomfortable so she tried to ease our discomfort by suggesting that since she’s a widow she’s “allowed to have ‘those thoughts’ now” which of course made us even more uncomfortable.

Pointing out her inappropriate comments would fuel further inappropriate behavior and cause us all even more embarrassment.  So, I simply change the subject to something neutral (think “the weather”) and the previous conversation is quickly forgotten.


1. They are not able to learn

When you’re thinking about correcting the elderly bad behavior from your parents remember that you are not dealing with a young child capable of learning new character fairly easily. Rather, this is someone whose brain is being altered by age and disease. Any correction should be done only to diffuse an embarrassing or harmful situation, not teach a lesson.

2. Never “punish” in anger or simply to make yourself feel better

I understand the temptation. There have been many times that I wanted to “punish” my MIL. I want her to know the hurt she caused me through her words by giving her the “silent treatment”. I want her to recognize the importance of wearing underwear by having to mop up her own mess and change her own sheets, or at least show gratitude to me for cleaning it up. But, these actions would only serve to temporarily soothe my hurt. It would solve nothing.

Related Post: I Won’t Be Your Burden | How to Find Joy in Caregiving

3. Avoid Infantilizing

Finally, always try to treat them as an adult, even when correcting them. When they are experiencing the natural consequences of their actions, empathize and reassure. When removing them from a situation, suggest an alternate activity they enjoy with the guarantee that you will handle “it” so they don’t have to. And when redirecting, turn to something that is familiar and secure.

It’s a slippery slope. In my mind, my MIL is my fourth child, but she is also a woman who has lived a life not so different than mine and deserving of dignity and respect.

Your elderly parent is going to “misbehave”. They are going to say or do things that are inappropriate and completely opposite of their character, whether because of disease or just a lack of caring what people think anymore. You are going to be shocked, horrified, and saddened by some of their actions and you’re going to want to do something about them. By remembering these corrective suggestions you will be able to gracefully handle elderly bad behavior.

Did you like this post? Do you have trouble intervening when your parent displays bad behavior? Let me know in the comments below!

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Does the idea of correcting your aging parent, no matter how justified seem a little strange to you? Learn how to appropriately handle elderly bad behavior.

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One Comment

  1. My Mother has Stage 4 Metastatic breast cancer in her liver and her memory is going too.
    Mom is is a group home and a housemate recently kept saying, “Is there an indoor toilet here”? The delightful woman sitting on the other side of my Mom’s recliner finally whispered! “Tell her it’s on the third floor”! Any time I need a smile, I recall this funny moment.
    Thank you for the wonderful information. I hope it will help me deal with my parents more effectively.

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