‘Behavioral slowing’ isn’t uncommon among elderly


Q. I am caring for my healthy 85-year-old mother. In the last year, when we go to the grocery store, we are there for over an hour. She can’t decide what she wants or needs. I am trying to be patient, but it is really bothering me. Is her indecision a normal part of aging?

A. You are describing behavioral slowing which is one of the most noted markers of old age. This slowing is more noticeable when one is attempting to complete complex tasks rather than daily routines. That is the reason her behavior is more noticeable in the grocery store than it is at home. For example, your mother may want to buy a can of soup. She may look at several cans, read the ingredients, and finally choose one. For someone younger, buying a can of soup takes little time. For someone who is experiencing behavioral slowing, the decision-making process becomes more problematic.

Your mother’s difficulty with decision-making may also be a factor of learned cautiousness. Older people sometimes lose confidence in their abilities and do not want others to observe their mistakes. For example, your mother may be concerned that she could forget to buy low-sodium soup. She also may be apprehensive that you will be annoyed. She could even be worried that these lapses are signs of impending dementia.

Research studies suggest that older adults improve in response time when they practice. Help her make a list before going to the store or running errands, assist her in choosing products, and never let her be aware of your annoyance. It is normal for you as her caregiver to be frustrated in these situations, but remaining calm in her presence is important. If she develops more confidence, the situation will likely improve for both of you.

Q. My elderly mother is losing her hearing. We beg her to wear her hearing aid. Oftentimes, she refuses and hears little of our conversation. She says we “mumble” and accuses us of talking about her. Is there anything I can do to encourage her to wear her hearing aid?

A. Some hearing loss is to be expected as people age. According to the U.S. Bureau of Census, approximately 46 percent of men and 32 percent of women over the age of 75 have some type of hearing difficulty.

When the elderly lose their ability to hear, they also lose their ability to maintain a connection with family and friends. This loss leads to isolation and suspicion that people are ignoring them or making negative comments.

Sometimes there are problems with hearing aids that discourage people from wearing them. Since your mother is refusing to wear hers, take her to a specialist to be certain that the device fits properly and that she is not hearing needless static.

You and your family must understand that you need to be close to your mother when you speak, and she should be able to see you. She will not hear if you shout across the room or if there are several conversations going on at once.

Talk to your mother gently about her responsibility. Reiterate that she is missing connections with family and the enjoyment of life. Tell her that she must tell people if she cannot hear them. People with a good sense of self-esteem will automatically say,”Stand closer when you speak to me” or “Please repeat what you said.” Attempt to convince your mother that you love her and the family will attempt to be more considerate to her needs, but it is also her responsibility to be proactive.

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Nancy Ryburn holds a doctorate degree in psychology from Yeshiva University in New York City where she maintained a private practice. She now teaches psychology at Southeast Arkansas College. E-mail your questions to drnryburn@gmail.com. The questions will not be answered personally, but could appear in a future column. There will be no identifying information and all e-mails remain confidential.