Why Is My Elderly Parent So Angry?
6 Things Seniors Can Do To Address Anger
Dad, who was always so even-tempered, now seems to snap at every little thing. He argues out loud with news commentators, and yells at other drivers when on the road. He’s getting on Mom’s nerves! Even the grandkids have noticed that Grampa’s grumpy. What’s up? Is this just a normal part of aging?
The crabby senior is a common ageist stereotype. It even has its own tagline: “You kids get off my lawn!” Yet according to Dr. Dilip Jeste of the University of California San Diego School of Medicine, our emotions usually level out as we grow older. Dr. Jeste, a geriatric neuropsychiatrist, reports that most older adults have developed coping skills over the years that help keep them on an even keel, less likely to “sweat the little things.”
Still, some changes we face in our later years can spark feelings of anger. Giving up driving and mobility challenges lessen our independence and threaten our self-esteem. We might face ageism and a lack of respect. Health problems, especially physical pain, can exacerbate anger—anyone, at any age, is likely to be more irritable when something hurts. Frustrations reverberate, and next thing, an older adult has a sudden outburst directed at the TV, or overreacts to someone who cut in line at the drive-through.
While negative emotions such as sadness and anger are natural, anger in particular can be bad for us. A recent study published by the American Psychological Association showed that over time, feeling frequently angry harms the health of older adults. Study author Meaghan A. Barlow of Concordia University explained that anger causes the body to release hormones that activate our “fight or flight” state, increasing inflammation that raises the risk of chronic illness. Barlow says the effect is more pronounced the older we are.
Other research confirms the effects of anger on health. A March 2022 study from the University of Konstanz in Germany found that older men who often feel angry are also likely to perceive, rightly or wrongly, anger in the faces of other people—and those seniors tend to have higher blood pressure.
The effect can be immediate. A 2021 study from the National University of Ireland Galway showed that feeling angry raises a person’s risk of stroke by 30% for the next hour. And a 2020 study from Yale University found that when patients with heart disease reported experiencing anger during the previous week, they performed more poorly than normal on tests of heart function. Excess anger has also been shown to raise the risk of dementia. It can also be detrimental to a senior’s relationships, leading to unhealthy loneliness and isolation.
If you are frequently angry—or maybe your spouse, children or friends say that you are—it’s important to address the problem. Here are six things you can do:
Increased anger could be a sign of a physical, emotional or cognitive health problem. Have your medications reviewed—some drugs cause mood swings that make our emotions less stable. If you have arthritis or another painful condition, talk about effective pain control.
Experts say some people are more genetically predisposed toward anger. Others experience “displaced anger,” when frustration over one trigger spills into other areas of life. Anger even can become a habit. Keep an anger diary to learn the underlying stressors that lead to your feelings of anger.
For example, loss of independence can cause anger. Maybe you lash out at family trying to help you because you’re grieving loss of control. Are there ways to enhance your independence? Accessing senior services or hiring a professional in-home caregiver can help you take back some of that control. Or if your self-esteem feels under attack, find volunteer opportunities where you can make a difference.
Do you spend a lot of time watching partisan news sources, listening to talk radio, or on social media sites? Some of those entities monetize anger to increase their audience and sell ads. A recent study from the University of Colorado and the U.S. Air Force Academy also pointed out that “political furor may spread easily.” Said study author Carey Stapleton, “Politicians want to get reelected, and anger is a powerful tool that they can use to make that happen.” This anger can be contagious, and an older adult who has a lot of time to tune in can quickly accrue a toxic dose of rage.
Spend less time on social media and more time in pleasant surroundings—especially in nature. Studies show that immersion in green spaces can reduce feelings of anger. Go for a walk in the park, sit in the garden, or look out the window at trees. Listening to pleasant music and watching children play are other ways to feel more positive.
Get more exercise, find opportunities for socialization, and if you’re having trouble controlling your alcohol consumption, ask your doctor for advice.
Individual counseling and support groups have helped many people take control of anger. Anger management techniques might include:
- Therapy to help you identify your triggers for anger, and to understand how your life experience shapes your reactions.
- Cognitive behavioral therapy to build awareness of the underlying processes that are going on when you feel anger, and to internalize productive ways to cope with triggers.
- Training in better communication skills, to express your feelings and discuss things that trouble you before a situation escalates into a counterproductive argument.
- Mindfulness practices to help you observe the effect of anger in your body, defuse it with deep breathing, and let it go without judgment.
Anger management training can be provided by a psychiatrist, psychologist, trained counselor or social worker. Ask your doctor or an aging life care professional (geriatric care manager) for a referral to a provider who is qualified to treat older adults.
Right at Home will work with your family to select compatible, qualified professional caregivers to ensure your loved one’s well-being at home. Our unique five-step process provides just the right fit for your family. Contact your local Right at Home* today and ask for a FREE in-home consultation.
*In-home care services vary by location.
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