The Crime of Elder Bitterness


September 23, 2009 by David Gillaspie




Bitterness with age comes from a sense of abandonment by those who’ve died or live too far away to be more than a voice on a phone. Once that particular bitterness sets in it’s an uphill push to get things straightened out, but it can be done.

Look at an old face with a sour expression and think about trust; they’ve lost their sense of trust. Build that back into their lives and something else gets pushed out, hopefully bitterness.  Science tells us that at a certain age the emotional bag grows brittle with limited space; adding more emotion cramps the rest.

A good way to build trust is to bore the elderly. When you talk to them repeat yourself often, say things like, ‘to make a long story short’ then never end. Throw a few ‘whatevers’ and ‘anyhows’ into your monologue.  Note I said bore them, not mock them. 

This tried and true method brings immediate results. Do the above routine with one of your family elders and they will feel sorry for you. Bingo, another reason for them to live. They need to stay sharp because you’re too lame to get through the day without their help.

If we have a semblance of surface conversation without feeling like we’ll be tested on content, we’re happy.  It’s the same with the elderly; it’s the same with everyone. Keeping up with the general subjects is enough.  It’s not up to you to keep others dialed into Robert’s Rules of Order on Social Discourse. 

Call it manipulative, call it passive aggressive, but call it what it is: doing what it takes to turn on the lights of a loved one.

Whatever they watch TV, ask when you can change to M.A.S.H. or The Andy Griffith Show.  Marvel at how ambitious Andy was to go to law school when you see Matlock.  Talk about Perry Mason and how he was a pioneering CSI man.  Mention Pvt. Gomer Pyle.

If you really care about the elderly, this is the program. Here’s why: our elders sit in front of their doctor and hear ‘Do you know what day it is?’ ‘What year is it?’ ‘What town do you live in?’ These questions piss them off, both hearing them and answering them. Let the time you spend with them leave them in charge.

Give them that much.

My father in law gave me financial advice, marital advice, health advice.  It didn’t matter that he had Parkinson’s, dementia, and cancer.  I always asked for his opinion so I just continued.  After all, this is the guy who talked me through a three hour O-ring change on a toilet and never once said it was a fifteen minute job.

I asked him things when we were alone.  I don’t know why but when my boys listen in they use my conversations agasint me.

On health:

Me: What is the one exercise you’d recommend for everyone?

Gramps: Well, there’s, uh, maybe…

Me:  I read that walking has secret benefits unknown until now.  Just walking.  Like marching.  When you were in the Marines did you sense any secret benefits of marching?

Gramps: I-I- woke up tired from d-d-dreaming of marching.

Me: I hear that.  You know, about the dream march.  What is a dream march?

Gramps: D-d-dancing with the most b-beautiful woman in the room.

Me: Are you asking me to dance?

Gramps: (gives me the eye) Not pretty enough.

Me: Yep, that’s me, a two at ten and a ten at two.  That adds up to the question: What is the one exercise you’d recommend?

Gramps: I b-believe walking.

Me: Right in there with smart guys.

If I can group him with the current thought, and point it out if it came up on a television commercial, I do.  Then I say “if they listened to you there wouldn’t be a problem.”

Marital matters:

Ken was married three times.  It seems like a lot, but my Granddaddy was married seven.

Me: Seven times a groom.  That had to get old.  Did it get old hat after three?

Gramps: Well…

Me: Yeah, I know.  You finally married the right one.  I did it right off.  Once.  My grandpa kept number seven.  She was a jailer in the Dallas jail where Lee Harvey Oswald got shot.

Gramps: O-O-Oswald…

Me: A Marine.  That’s where he learned to shoot.  That was in a movie.  Maybe a book.  Television?  Anyway.  That’s where you learned to shoot?  You’d go out with Chuck Norris and shoot wild pigs in Santa Barbara.

Gramps: Yeah.

If I got a solid response I stopped.  Sometimes he reminded me I wasn’t letting him talk.  In certain kinds of caregiving that response is golden.  There’s a lot of brain stuff going on to recognize and correct behavior.  If my kids heard me they’d say I was being rude.  Fine line?


Me: Remember last week when I thought I lost my money?

Gramps: Y-Y-yes I…

Me: Last Tuesday.  I didn’t lose.  I think someone took it.

I lean in for a good eye to eye.  Will he think I’m accusing him?

Gramps: Well you-you-you know…

Me: I think it was one of the kids.  I’ll find out more.  Can you loan me a couple of bucks ’til then?

Gramps: Yep.

I get his wallet and fish out a few bills.  I get out mine and happily discover my missing money.  We count his back into his wallet and put it away.

Me: You didn’t think the kids robbed me did you?

Gramps: Nope.


4 thoughts on “The Crime of Elder Bitterness

  1. Paul Rood says:

    Grandma was diagnoed with Alzheimers, and as her promary caregiver I find a lot of our time together to be frustrating.Thanx for a bit of insight as well as a new approach to our conversations.

    • David Gillaspie says:

      Hi Paul,

      There’s a saying in youth coaching that holds that as long as the kids are having fun, you’re getting it done. My take? As long as the coach and kids and parents are having fun in the sport, then you’re getting it done.

      As the best caregiver, look at the biggest picture. Since things have to get done anyway, why not try and make them a source of fun? That’s the real work, and doing it preserves the sort of memories you can live with.

      Be a great caregiver,


  2. Tnelson says:

    I don’t usually reply to posts but I will in this case, great info…I will add a backlink and bookmark your site. Keep up the good work!

    • David Gillaspie says:

      It’s funny to find things that get us revved up. It might not be a crime, but leaving folks who could use a friendly word from their family is never fair minded.

      Thanks for the thumbs up,


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