Martha Kern
Lauren Sherman, LCSW, NMG, CCM

Every age group is the subject of stereotypes, but perhaps none more so than seniors.  An array of physical attributes, habits and personality characteristics are often ascribed to elderly people and, like many stereotypes, find their roots in observed behavior.  Many of us have noted that older people tend to eat dinner at 4:00 pm and refuse to spend money, and we’ve wondered to ourselves why they do these sometimes maddening things.

Those of us who serve seniors on a professional basis, and those of us who plan on becoming seniors, would be well-served to better understand these behaviors and the physical, emotional and psychological changes that drive them.  Perhaps a little extra insight will help us exercise more patience and empathy with our clients and, later, with ourselves when we, too, become “cranky” and preoccupied with desserts.

Following is a partial guide to what seem to be common tendencies among the elderly and explanations as to why they might behave as they do:

Driving well below the speed limit

Perhaps we should be grateful to the senior drivers on the road who exercise extreme caution and observe the rules of the road with great diligence.  Somehow, gratitude is rarely what we feel when we’re behind these drivers and we’re late for an appointment.

Proceeding at a speed of 30 mph when the limit is 55 mph is a tendency that reflects full awareness on the driver’s part that their reaction times may be poor.  Weakened muscles cannot always be counted upon to apply the required pressure to the brake pedal in an emergency.  It’s also true that vision and hearing deficits make it harder to perceive such emergencies or even to accurately assess routine traffic conditions on a reliable basis.

In sum, senior drivers may well be deeply afraid of fast-moving, rapidly-changing traffic conditions to which they are ill-prepared to respond.  The slow speed says, “I’m afraid and I haven’t figured out how to get where I need to go without driving.”

Refusing to bathe

There are a host of explanations for the phenomenon of resistance to grooming practices even after a lifetime of fastidious attention to such things.  Caregivers and family members find this behavior especially frustrating as body odors increase and there appears to be no rational reason to refuse a bath or shower.

A senior may be told they need a shower, and it’s entirely possible they don’t believe it.  They have become desensitized to their own odors and grew up in an era where daily showers were simply not the norm.  They may also perceive no purpose in going to the trouble of bathing when they have nowhere to go and no one to see.  Depression can generate disengagement from daily tasks and activities.

Control is another significant factor.  Seniors gradually cede control of many aspects of their lives and become increasingly reliant on others to do things they could once do independently.  Having another person set one’s shower schedule, and then perhaps suffering the indignity of receiving help in this deeply personal activity, is too much for some to bear.  They draw the line and exert control.  Disrobing and getting into the bath tub are things a person can refuse to do with some success, and refuse they do.

Some seniors may also resist showering because they’re afraid.  The surfaces are slick and hard.  It’s a perfect storm of fall and injury risk.  Never does a person feel more vulnerable than when they are naked and exposed.  They can’t trust their bodies anymore to be agile and steady.  A game-changing fall could occur in the shower and to some seniors, the reward does not justify the risk.

Eating dinner at 4:00

If one’s professional life is viewed as a busy highway, retirement is a definite off ramp.  Once that heavy stream of traffic and activity is left behind, the structure that goes with it is also abandoned.  The days become open, fluid stretches of time that retirees are free to shape as they wish.

Even though retired people can finally sleep late, it seems many wake early. Long stretches of sleep can be made impossible by bladder urges and other issues. If one wakes at 5:00 a.m. for example, lunch at 10:30 a.m. suddenly becomes a reasonable idea.  And if a 10:30 lunch occurs, hunger at 4:00 is hardly surprising.  Restaurants have responded to the demand with “early bird specials”, offering a financial incentive to get out early for dinner and be home well before dark (another benefit for those who don’t like driving at night).

Because of the aforementioned bladder urges, some seniors make a point of not eating or drinking anything within hours of bedtime which, incidentally, might also be far earlier than it once was due to the early rising.  Suddenly, dinner at 4:00 is a regular habit.

Napping all day

Given the sleep disruptions already touched upon, indulging in the occasional afternoon nap appears to be fully reasonable.  There is a risk, however, that napping during the day will only exacerbate the lighter sleep patterns that seem to plague older people, commencing what could be a cycle of restless nights and drowsy days.

Medications can certainly induce drowsiness, and this is a topic that can be addressed by the physician and/or pharmacist.  Older people metabolize medications differently than younger users, and drowsiness may be a side effect they experience more acutely.

Depression and plain old boredom may also account for increased sleep during the day.  Some seniors lose interest in life.  There are fewer obligations, appointments and pressing needs to which they must attend.  Days become long when they are not stacked with activity.  The combination of poor sleep and empty afternoons can easily lead to chronic napping.

Overheating the house

Many of us have seen an elderly person wearing a jacket in 80-degree weather.  There are very real physiological reasons older people cannot keep themselves warm as efficiently as they did in their youth.  Both circulation and muscle mass decrease, and that insulating fat layer beneath the skin thins out.  The body simply loses its ability to keep the chill away, inspiring heavy use of sweaters and an affection for extra warm houses.

Fixating on dessert

Some seniors develop a keen interest in desserts, and some will skip “real food” altogether in favor of cakes, pies, cookies and ice cream.

The sense of taste diminishes with age, and this can trigger a general loss of interest in food.  Dessert, however, has always been regarded as a treat, and it may be something a person has denied themselves throughout life.  At the age of 80 or 90, people may develop a devil-may-care attitude toward dessert, especially if they’re thinner than they used to be.  Why not have a cookie?

Desserts also tend to include a lot of soft, easy-to-eat options – pudding, cake, and ice cream are easy to chew and swallow, a cherished benefit for those who struggle with these functions.  Missing teeth and denture problems can also make soft foods the preferred choice.

Believing that everything was better in the past

Aside from the unusual rigors of walking miles to school in the snow, old practices and past times in general are almost universally perceived by seniors to be superior to the way things are now.  It’s hard to believe, given our technological advances and increased sophistication, that anything from the past could be better.

Technology is a big part of this perception.  People who are elderly today have perhaps never touched a computer or even harbored a desire to do so.  Even if a person maintains a certain tech-savviness during a professional career, retiring may well call a halt to experimentation with new apps, software, devices and other advances.  Once a person steps out of the constantly-updating techno world, the speed of advancement seems dizzying and the myriad options confusing. Trends whirl on at a crazy pace and the language evolves quickly. Tweeting, texting, memes, malware…..what is all that?

The exposure seniors do have the wider world often comes from TV, particularly the 24-hour news cycle featuring murder, mayhem, global threats, identify theft, terrorism, and mass shootings.  It’s frightening! Some of these things existed in 1940, too, but news distribution was infinitely more limited and the populace heard only briefly about some of the world’s darker elements.

It’s also true that in the past they were younger people, busy with careers and families and the preoccupations of the day.  They were in the flow of things.  They understood it all.  They knew the lyrics to popular songs and what the latest dance craze was. Stepping away, even for a minute, can mean coming back to find everything has changed. Nothing makes sense.  It’s too much to take in. And all at once, the past appears much simpler and much better.

Refusing to spend money on things they can afford

Money represents another key thing seniors can control.  As long as they hold the purse strings, everything that goes in and out of bank accounts is watched with great diligence.  Cash flow, depending on its direction, can be a source of either comfort or terror.

Transitioning to a fixed income is a terrifying experience for some.  Every dime is used on current expenses and the occasional surprise expense requires dipping into savings.  Bank balances always seem to be going down.  The rainy-day funds are dwindling with no means by which to replenish them.

Add to all this the modern-day problem of potentially living to a very old age.  Seniors don’t know how long their savings will have to last.  Every expenditure feels like a threat to the future – what if I need this money someday?

Sometimes, though, the words, “I can’t afford it” really just mean, “I don’t want it”.  Suggestions that a caregiver be considered or an assisted living environment be toured will frequently result in a declaration that these things cannot be afforded.  What that elderly person might really be communicating is that they want nothing to do with the trappings of age, dependency, and the loss of control it might represent to them.  They don’t want to explain feelings they barely understand themselves.  It’s just easier to blame their resistance on inadequate funds.

There are, of course, many other behaviors that could be explored here.  Every one of them likely finds its origins in a physiological change outside a senior’s control, or in an erosion of confidence, purpose and structure stemming from the game-changing transition called “retirement”.  Every person reading this article might someday wear sweaters in June and steal sweetener packets from restaurants.  Be assured there is a reason for each of the behaviors we observe, and if we can fathom the reason, we can understand and show empathy for the person before us, and for the person we might become.


©Lifecare Innovations, Inc.