What To Do When a Senior Loved One’s Behavior Suddenly Changes

Is your senior loved one suddenly becoming difficult (or more difficult than before)? Has the person you thought you knew backwards and forwards started behaving in ways that seem completely opposite of their personality or regular behavior? It’s not uncommon for personalities and behaviors to change as we age, although they’re usually mild and happen gradually. However, when a senior loved one’s behavior suddenly changes, it can be frightening, confusing and concerning for everyone involved.


“When an older person’s behavior changes all of a sudden, seemingly out of the blue, that’s a cause for concern,” says Cindy Wirth, Executive Director of Bridges® by EPOCH at Sudbury, a memory care assisted living community in Sudbury, MA. “There are many different things that can cause these changes, from the early signs of dementia to medication side effects to even infections – and that’s just a few of the reasons. The important thing is to act quickly when you notice that something’s ‘off’ with your loved one. If they’re experiencing a serious medical issue, you want to make sure they get care as soon as possible.”


We’ve compiled a list of some of the most common causes of behavior changes in seniors so that you and your loved ones can be aware of what they are – and what can be done about them in order to make sure your senior loved one is as healthy and safe as possible.


Side effects from medications.

As we age, we naturally have more health issues, which leads to more medications. Some seniors can take what looks like an entire medicine cabinet of pills on the regular. Unfortunately, there are many medications that carry unwanted side effects. Some medications may also be interacting in ways that are detrimental to your loved one’s health. For example, some depression medications can make individuals angry, reckless or even more depressed. Some medicines will interact poorly with over-the-counter drugs, foods or herbal supplements. If you’ve noticed that your loved one’s behavior has suddenly changed after their medications have been tweaked, this could be the cause. Check with your loved one’s doctor to determine if anything needs to be adjusted or changed.


Early signs of cognitive decline.

The dreaded word “dementia” is what people most often think when their loved one starts behaving erratically. Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia can cause sudden behavioral problems, although normally changes occur gradually. It’s important to realize that not all cognitive decline is due to dementia. Sometimes it’s a symptom of something that can be managed or even reversed. No matter what the cause, it’s always best to have your loved one checked by their doctor to rule out (or determine) any cognitive diseases. Even if the behavior changes are being caused by Alzheimer’s disease or another form of dementia, catching the disease in the earlier stages allows for treatments and therapies that can help manage the symptoms and potentially slow the progression of the disease.


Urinary tract infections (and other infections).

When we think of UTIs, we imagine dark urine, difficulty urinating and a burning sensation. However, in seniors, UTIs can manifest differently and may not even have any physical symptoms at all. Sudden behavioral changes in your loved one can be due to infections, and can be very important warning signs. If your loved one is experiencing some form of infection, it’s essential to get it taken care of as soon as possible before it morphs into something serious, like kidney damage or sepsis. Have your loved one visit the doctor to rule out or diagnose if there’s an infection occurring so you can get treatment right away.


Changes in vision.

Many seniors have vision-related issues such as deteriorating sight, cataracts or others. These changes can potentially cause behavioral and personality changes because of the ways that visual perception has changed. Some eye conditions can even cause visual hallucinations, which can be quite terrifying for your loved one. Consider having your loved one’s eyes checked to see if there’s an issue that can be treated or otherwise managed.


Difficulty hearing.

Just as our eyes get worse as we get older, so do our ears (or, perhaps more specifically, our eardrums). Being unable to understand or hear what’s being said or what’s going on around them can make seniors act differently. Seniors can often be embarrassed or depressed about hearing changes, which can cause them to become socially withdrawn or angry for no apparent reason. A hearing test administered by a specialist can help determine if your loved one is experiencing issues and needs hearing aids.


Depression and mental health issues.

Depression and other mental issues can be a big cause of behavior changes in older adults. Depression is fairly common as we age due to stress, loss of loved ones, anxiety about health or simply feeling sad about getting older. If your loved one’s behavior has suddenly changed due to a loss or some other significant news, it’s highly possible that depression or another mental issue could be the cause. Have your loved one visit the doctor to talk about their issues and see if there are medications or therapies that can help improve their mental state.


Unresolved concerns.

Some people are excellent about sharing their feelings and discussing their thoughts, fears, hopes and dreams with others. However, not all people – and not all seniors – are that way. Getting older carries a lot of stress and worry, and if your loved one is one of those people who keeps their feelings bottled up, this could spill over into sudden personality or behavioral changes. For example, your loved one may suddenly become suspicious or lash out at you if he or she believes that they’re going to have to move out of their home due to health issues. There are seemingly countless concerns that could be affecting a senior loved one. If you suspect that your loved one’s behavior might be cause to worry, stress or other unresolved concerns, take time to sit with them and talk – really talk. It may take time for your loved one to open up, but if they see that you’re being nonjudgmental and really want to help, you can hopefully work together towards a solution. If your loved one won’t talk to you about their concerns, consider enlisting the help of a trusted advisor, spiritual leader or even a social worker. Talking to a neutral third-party may be the key to helping your loved one get the assistance they need.


Sudden behavioral problems can be quite difficult and scary for seniors and their loved ones. By determining and treating the cause of the issues, many behavioral challenges can be managed or mitigated, which will ensure a better quality of life for your senior loved one.


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Bridges® by EPOCH at Sudbury provides exceptional memory care in a comfortable and engaging environment. Designed specifically to support those with Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia, our community delivers a wellness-focused lifestyle that respects individual preferences and abilities. Our teams receive ongoing, specialized training so they may help residents to safely exercise their independence in a secure, calm environment.


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Bridges® by EPOCH at Sudbury is more than a safe, beautiful place to live; it’s truly a home, where compassionate, dementia-educated caregivers help people with memory loss live more fulfilling lives. Our research-based design features, including soft lighting and colors, nonglare flooring, directional cues, and aromatherapy, empower residents to comfortably move about their home with confidence.

Bridges® by EPOCH is New England's largest stand-alone memory care assisted living provider.

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