Helping Your Elderly Parents Get Along

Tim Watt  |  January 30, 2013

There are many roles adults may take on with their aging parents - nurse, caregiver, cook, housekeeper and personal finance planner, among others. One role that some individuals might not expect is a marriage counselor. The New York Times reports that many adult children are noticing increased tension between their parents as they age, and may step into the role of a mediator to improve the quality of their parents' marriage.

Even in the happiest of marriages, increased anger or frustration is not uncommon as seniors age, according to geriatricians. If you have noticed some marital problems between your elderly parents, there are some ways to address and potentially quell these issues.

Are you sure it's new?
Some adults notice that their parents are arguing, but don't realize that it's nothing new for them, the news outlet reports. Bickering could be part of their marital style and adult children, who are only now becoming so engaged in the relationship, are just starting to notice. It could also be new behavior that was triggered by a change, in which case it's important to identify and act upon the root cause.

Why the change?
Increased fighting or friction between a senior couple could be caused by mental or physical health problems. Anger and frustration are some of the first signs of mild cognitive impairment, which is a precursor to Alzheimer's or dementia, the news outlet reports. This can be difficult for either spouse or the children to detect, and often manifests itself as resentment and hurt. The same can be said for clinical signs of this condition such as suspicion, paranoia and forgetfulness.

Physical problems, though they seem much less a part of a relationship, can cause couples to fight or foster negative feelings. A study published in The Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ) found that physical ailments can "upset the equilibrium of the marriage."
Dr. Nancy K. Schlossberg, professor emerita of counseling psychology at the University of Maryland, agrees.

"Most men get angry at what's happened to them when they get ill, women get angry and scared when he's not what he used to be - so they fight," Schlossberg told the Times.

What can I do?
If you are concerned about your parents' relationship, you should plan a quiet time to discuss what you see, according to Caring.com. Avoid accusatory or judgmental tones, but explain your observations and recommend marriage counseling. No couple is "too old" for marital therapy, the news outlet reports.

The study published in CMAJ notes that with counseling for older couples, "radical changes in behavior" cannot always be expected. However, like counseling for younger couples, bringing children to the sessions can help.