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Paranoid Parents: Justified Suspicion or Cognitive Decline?

Mom thinks you’re stealing her money. Dad wants to double bolt the front door, so strangers don’t come in at night. Why is your parent being irrational? Are these thoughts a normal part of aging or is there something else going on?

What should you do? Should you be concerned or shrug it off?

Unfortunately, there are no easy answers to the problem of paranoid parents. The first order of business is to rule out any legitimate concerns before you dismiss their suspicions as irrational thoughts. Many seniors do become victims of fraudulent activity, so check to make sure they haven’t been scammed. Make sure that no one is entering the home who shouldn’t be there and verify that nothing has been stolen.

Once you confirm that your loved one is safe within their home, your next step is to uncover the reason for their suspicion. Dementia could be a factor. Some people with dementia experience increased paranoia, especially when it comes to other people. The home care worker becomes the target every time an object goes missing. Your loved one might say, “That woman is stealing my jewelry. She’s taking money out of my purse.” People with dementia often lack the ability to remember where they put their things, and they lack the self-awareness to understand that they are the ones misplacing objects. They often lose the ability to assess the character of a person or distinguish between someone who is there to help and someone who is there to harm.

Dementia isn’t the only condition that can lead to paranoia in older adults. Other causes include illness, strokes, depression, delusional disorder, vision, and hearing problems.

No matter what the cause, paranoia can be tough to handle. If you’re facing the challenge of a paranoid parent, the following ten tips may make your life easier.

Ten Tips for Dealing with a Paranoid Parent

  1. Put yourself in your parent’s shoes. Think about how scary it must be to not understand what is happening in your own home, to live in a world that doesn’t make sense, and to be afraid all the time.

  2. Stay calm. Try not to get frustrated with the person or become impatient.

  3. Remember that it's not about getting attention. Your parent truly believes that these events are happening. Don’t ask them to stop being silly or to stop talking about things that are not true.

  4. Don’t argue. Avoid using logic to try to convince the person that they are wrong. Go along with them.

  5. Validate the person’s emotions. Saying things like, “It must be very frightening to have strangers in your home,” or “You have every right to be angry if someone is stealing your money,” can help reduce defensiveness.

  6. Acknowledge the difficulty of the situation. Try saying, “I’m sorry, this is hard.” If you can do nothing else, at least you can make your parent feel as though you understand, and they are not alone in their concerns.

  7. Don’t take it personally. When your parent accuses you of a misdeed, it’s easy to take their criticism to heart. Try to avoid this. Your parent is doing the best they can to live with the confusion, even if that means blaming you.

  8. Document where items are stored. Make a list for your loved one that outlines where items are kept. The list might read like this: Your purse is in the front hall closet. The family heirlooms are in the attic. You gave your diamond ring to your granddaughter.

  9. Offer to help to look for lost items. Be on your parent’s side, rather than against them.

  10. Redirect. If you can’t find the item, try to distract your parent with an activity they will enjoy. Promise them you will look again after you have a cup of tea together.

It’s entirely possible that your parent will refuse your help. If that happens, talk to their doctor and explain your concerns. Find out what the underlying cause might be and have your parent assessed for health problems. If the physician recommends certain actions, make sure your parent knows that the doctor suggested it. In many cases, an older person will accept advice if it comes from a doctor or another authority figure rather than their son or daughter. You may also want to call your local chapter of the Alzheimer Association to get tips on how to deal with your situation.

Another option is to work with Truhlsen Elder Care Law of Nebraska to create a Life Care Plan for your parent. Elder care coordination services come with every Life Care Plan, which gives you a welcome buffer between you and your parents when the going gets tough.

No matter what course of action you choose, the most important thing is to keep your parent safe. We’re here to help if you need it.


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