I feel it is truly a blessing when an aging person continues to have sharp memories, can enjoy a good conversation and has rock-solid reasoning skills.

Unfortunately with age, many experience a decline in brain functions. To what degree, we never know; no two people decline identically. If we provide care for aging family members, we need to be sensitive to their changes.

When brain functions weaken, we may experience a change in our relationship with a parent. When a parent is irrational, belligerent and uncooperative, we can easily become reactive. It’s frustrating when reasoning gets us nowhere.

Changes in the brain can result in changes in personality. A person can experience difficultly understanding spatial relationships and mechanical functionality. Processing information and reasoning become more difficult, and an aging person can struggle with their reactions, impulses and emotions.

As caregivers, we need to develop an understanding and sensitivity that allow us to alter the way we would normally interact. As family members, the question is: How adaptable are we when our parent’s demeanor and personality are changing? How are we going to react if we no longer recognize a person we’ve known for 50 or 60 years? 

Use gentle persuasion

When rationality and reason no longer work, don’t keep trying. You’ll get frustrated; more importantly, your parent will think you are attacking them and that you are being critical for reasons they do not understand. Instead of forcing issues, an indirect approach is quite often the answer.

Again, every person’s age-affected changes are unique to them, but here’s an example:

Your parent has a doctor’s appointment, and for some unknown reason, the last couple times, your parent has been resistant to the idea of going to the doctor and has fought getting cleaned up, dressed and out of the house. This has turned into a fight, and you’ve been late.

On the other hand, your parent enjoys going for rides in the car. Instead of a “trip to the doctor,” make a date with your parent to go to their favorite viewpoint on Queen Anne Hill or for a drive along Lake Washington Boulevard to Seward Park. Call ahead; give them plenty of time to get ready. Go early and help with the unfinished, “getting-ready” chores.

After you get into the car and on the road, speak to your parent. Say, “Your doctor called and asked if the two of us could stop by his office for a short visit. Let’s do this today while we’re out for our drive. It will only take a few minutes, and then we can swing by your favorite hamburger place for lunch.”

Responses may vary. Be soft-spoken, and treat your parent with understanding. 

Avoid conflict

It’s important to keep your parent calm. Maintaining an unruffled demeanor and avoiding confrontations are vital for the well-being of aging people. When you see the elderly struggling with reality and having difficulty interacting with the world, you need to understand that their reality is no longer your reality.

As a family caregiver, develop your skills. Become smarter and adaptable in your approach. Automatic, reactive responses are most often counterproductive: You need to individualize your communications and care in ways that are not hurtful or offensive.

You are dealing with an aging person whose abilities to adapt and react are ever-changing. Troubling circumstances or demanding environments often trigger behaviors that you might characterize as undesirable. As a caregiver, sensitivity, respect and a soft tone are pathways to more-desired responses.

A simple but helpful tool: Put together picture albums and scrapbooks of activities your parent once enjoyed; include pictures of friends, familiar locations and family outings. As recollections fade, use these books as a way to enjoy meaningful time with your parent; use these books as a way to refresh and sustain their thoughts and memories of times gone by.

MARLA BECK is the founder and president of Andelcare Inc., which provides in-home eldercare. Beck was recognized by the U.S. Small Business Administration as Washington’s 2012 Small Business Person of the Year. Submit questions by calling (206) 838-1844 or via e-mail to marla@andelcare.com.