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Posted March 5, 2006

Ask An Expert

Elderly Behavior: Acting Badly and Lying -- What to Do

Q. My grandparents have lived in our home for two years. We lost my grandmother this past August. My Grandpa has had changes in his behavior for the last two or three years but has been steadily getting worse. He gets something on his mind and he relives it over and over until he gets what he wants. He is making bad decisions and choices. He took off to the beach this past Wednesday – but he had his shoulder operated on just two weeks ago. And he knows he is not supposed to drive. He lied to me and told me he was going to town. Then he never came home; instead, he drove to my aunt’s beach house. I had told him he knew he was not supposed to drive and that I would take him to town. He got mad and said he was going, that he did not need help.

He is starting to lie and tell a different story to different members of the family. He lives on a fixed income, but he still thinks sometimes he can buy a house or get a new car. Since my Grandma died in August, he has had three different cars. Sometimes I think he has a compulsive obsessive disorder but I am not sure that is really what’s going on. He makes choices but doesn’t think or rationalize them out.

He makes me and my family very tired mentally. He is very independent, and he is always trying to prove that he can still do what he wants, even going to extreme measures to prove his point sometimes. We want to talk to his doctor about the behavior, but Grandpa thinks we are ganging up on him and that we want him to move out. Neither of these statements is true; we are just concerned and want him to slow his mind down. Please give me any suggestions. Thank you.

April, Brown Summit, North Carolina

A. A number of things can cause the kinds of changes you are describing in your grandfather. I would encourage you to talk to his doctor about what you are observing. It is not necessary for your grandfather to be to be present at this information-gathering meeting. Areas to discuss include:

  1. Depression – Since your grandfather’s behavior has gotten worse since his wife died, one possibility is that he is suffering from a depressed bereavement reaction. In some older persons, depression is less characterized by sadness then by irritability and anxiety. If your grandmother was sick for a long time, he may now be feeling at a loss for how to fill his time and reengage with life. 
  2. Dementia – It is not unusual for dementia to first be detected in an older adult after their spouse dies, particularly if the deceased spouse has been responsible for keeping up many of the household’s day-to-day activities. Changes in judgment and decision-making are one of the early signs of Alzheimer’s disease. Such changes are further complicated by memory loss. A person who appears to be lying may, in fact, not accurately recall what he has said in one situation or another. The tendency to get ‘stuck’ on an idea can be another early symptom. Some forms of dementia are reversible and even life-threatening if not treated, so if is important to discuss your concerns with a doctor to see if a geriatric evaluation would be appropriate.
Older adults who have been independent all their life can become very defensive when they think family members are trying to control them. Try not to take your grandfather’s changes personally. Your local chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association can provide you with more information about the signs and symptoms of depression and dementia in older adults. Your nearest chapter can be found in state listings at the association’s website.

This answer is provided by Susan M. McCurry, Ph.D., Research Associate Professor at the University of Washington, School of Nursing, and a licensed clinical psychologist. She is a fellow in the Gerontological Society of America and an expert in the development of behavioral interventions for the treatment of mood and behavior disturbances in persons with dementia and family caregivers. Her publications include the recent book, “When A Family Member Has Dementia: Steps to Becoming a Resilient Caregiver” (Greenwood Press). She can be reached at smccurry@u.washington.edu.

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