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Embarrassing social behavior can stem from a number of causes

Carol Bradley Bursack, Minding Our Elders

Dear Carol: My dad has always been blunt with his words and loud when he's unhappy, but lately he's become publically belligerent over the slightest irritation. A recent example was when we went to a nice restaurant and there was a spot on his spoon. It was just a water spot and could have been wiped off, but he made a huge scene. The waiter apologized and brought him clean silverware, but Dad kept shouting that this is no way to run a business. I wanted to crawl under the table. Is this just old age affecting him? He's 76, and he can't drive anymore because of his eyes so we try to help out. I'm not sure what to do about his behavior or if there's anything that I can do. What would you suggest other than not take him out in public, which, I'll admit, we have considered. — GE

Dear GE: I can feel your embarrassment though your words. This is a tough spot to be in, and you have my sympathy.

My first thought is that your dad may be experiencing pain from arthritic joints or another source. Sometimes the combination of untreated pain and the loss of ability to perform certain tasks can make people cranky and intolerant. Individuals who have always been easily frustrated can become much worse under these conditions.

Losing one's driving privileges is a tough blow for many seniors. Your dad likely feels his losses keenly. This resentment could bleed over into other situations, especially on those occasions where he may have once been the driver. It may make it a little easier for you to tolerate his behavior if you try to put yourself in his place.

I want to stress that losing one's driving privileges or even suffering from pain doesn't give anyone a free pass to abuse waiters, store clerks, family members or others. My point is that he is likely having a rough time emotionally and possibly physically.

Seeing his doctor should be at the top of the to-do list. If your dad has uncontrolled pain from arthritis or another source the doctor may be able to prescribe him medication to help.

If he takes any medications at all, even over-the-counter drugs, the possible side effects should be checked. I recall my dad being given a drug for nerve pain as an experiment for another issue. This drug actually caused him excruciating pain which was eliminated when he was taken off the drug. This type of effect may not happen often but the possibility of a drug side effect shouldn't be overlooked. Some basically safe medications can also have mental side effects for a small group of people.

Your dad's doctor may also want to conduct some tests to make certain that there's no type of dementia present. Because your dad's behavior is more about the intensity of his actions than a personality change, dementia may not be the cause, but it's still possible the doctor may want to have him tested to be sure.

I'd love to give you hope that your dad will become easier to deal with. If he has pain and that can be controlled, he may improve. If a medication is causing physical or mental issues, that too could be altered. However, nothing will change the fact that he understandably resents his growing limitations.

You can talk with your dad frankly and let him know that you enjoy being able to take him out but that he has to clean up his act and treat others with respect.

Perhaps if he's aware that he may not have as many offers to go out if he doesn't control his anger he'll make an effort to do better.

Carol Bradley Bursack is the author of a support book on caregiving and runs a website supporting caregivers at She can be reached at