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Lifelong complainers aren't likely to change with improved circumstances

Carol Bradley Bursack, Forum columnist Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor

Dear Carol: My aunt, who never married, has always been a complainer. She has a decent retirement income but has always lived in a hovel because she never wanted to spend her money. Now she has chronic health problems. When my husband and I last visited her home, we knew that morally we couldn't let this go on because she was physically filthy and unable to care for herself, and she couldn't climb her steps to go out. We finally convinced her to move to a wonderful care facility where she's been settled for over six months. She has great food, a saintly aide that costs extra but is worth every penny, activities to attend, and lovely surroundings. Still, all she does is complain. It's getting so that I can hardly stand to visit her, though visiting has been a priority so that we could keep an eye on things. She's wearing me down. Why are some people like this? — RE

Dear RE: Unfortunately, some people are only happy if they can complain. A mental health professional could give you many reasons for this behavior but you wrote to me so I'll provide some layman insight. Chronic complainers often seem to have negative feelings about themselves, and complaining about their circumstances or other people makes them feel more important. This behavior could be caused by mental illnesses or personality disorders, or even childhood experiences that haven't been dealt with.

For whatever reason, your aunt has always been unhappy with her lot in life. Her attitude may have made it hard for her to find a mate if indeed she ever wanted to marry. This would, in turn, give her more reason to be bitter and negative. Now, with the issues of aging affecting her so dramatically, she has no tools to cope with these changes other than increased complaining.

Even though she currently has far nicer and healthier surroundings, the move wasn't her choice. This may symbolize to her a loss of independence, and few of us take that without some resentment.

While normally I think that elders deserve to live where they choose as long as their cognition and mental health is reasonably good, your aunt clearly needed to be moved because she couldn't even take care of the basics of health, sanitation, and safety so she doesn't meet these criteria. It sounds as though you did what needed to be done.

At this point, there may be nothing much you can do but understand that she has a mental health issue that makes complaining her only method of coping. Therefore, complaining makes her feel better.

Continue to keep your eyes open for any real problems because with a chronic complainer you won't be able to tell if something really is wrong or if she's just being herself. However, it does sound like you've found her a good home for her, with regular meals and attentive care. It's commendable of you to follow through with this difficult relative.

Carol Bradley Bursack is a veteran caregiver and an established columnist. She is also a blogger, and the author of Minding Our Elders: Caregivers Share Their Personal Stories. Bradley Bursack hosts a website supporting caregivers and elders at www.mindingourelders.com. She can be reached at carolbursack@msn.com.

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