I was on a cross-country telephone call with my sister yesterday, and we were talking about our “last uncle standing.”
It’s the term our family uses to describe the sole remaining elder on my mother’s side.
My sis lives near him and reports he has become incredibly self-absorbed of late. He always had that tendency, but it’s becoming more pronounced. He is increasingly surly, negative and diminishing of others.
As siblings often do, we tossed around ideas: “A dementia diagnosis, perhaps?” “Depression, maybe, that manifests itself in interesting ways, especially with aging men.” Or even, “Could he be on too many medications?” “Not enough?”
The term “narcissism” had apparently been used to describe his behaviors by people who are more intimate with my uncle’s circumstances. It’s a word I have heard more often lately, and I’m curious about it. This is worth contemplating — definitely behavior that needs watching. The application may go way beyond my 90-year-old uncle.
In my initial Google search, one description referred to narcissism as “a universal reaction to feeling unseen or misunderstood.” People with narcissistic personality behaviors feel “easily slighted and unjustly treated.” And they are provoked by the slightest suggestion they are not appreciated to the degree they deserve. They can become vengeful.
More formally stated, it is a “mental disorder marked by feelings of extreme superiority." The person with a narcissistic personality demands endless praise and is constantly manipulating others with no regard for their feelings and emotions.” Whoa, that is heavy. Constantly? No regard?
I worry for my four cousins; this is their dad. A caring.com article by Anne-Marie Botek, referencing the work of geriatric psychologist Laura Thomas, vividly brought it into focus for me. If you are a caregiver for an older adult with narcissistic tendencies, your situation is tricky. ”You cannot leave them, and it’s nearly impossible to love them — and you want to pull your hair out every time you are around them.”
But wait — we all have a degree of narcissism in us — ”the classic signs exist on a continuum.” In addition, an older adult can suddenly develop some narcissistic tendencies “following a major life event such as the loss of a spouse, the onset of a major health issue.” Small consolation if you are giving care to someone with these behaviors on a daily basis.
Care-giving is hard under any circumstances, and narcissistic behaviors are particularly challenging. I’ve begun to immerse myself in the literature and have quickly come to realize that if you want to avoid an ”unproductive cycle of verbal blow-ups,” there are certain approaches to heed.
As with many forms of dementia, a key piece of advice is to “steer clear of an outright confrontation.” Try not to argue an issue. Use distraction and humor as you can. Experts suggest that family members or caregivers “should first determine what they want to achieve by confronting the problems.”
According to social-work expert Meredith Resnick, “If the issue is a minor one, it might be best to cede the victory to the senior.”
Other advice: Seek professional help and set personal limits on how much verbal abuse you’re willing to take. Stick to those limits. If you need it, call for help — it takes a village.
— Sharon Johnson is a retired Oregon State University associate professor. Reach her at Sharon@agefriendlyinnovators.org.