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Why Do the Elderly Become Childlike?

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An older man with his head fracturing as a visual representation of grappling with depression, frustration, and helplessness caused by dementia

As our loved ones age, we may notice changes not just in their physical bodies but also in their mental and emotional states. We may even see them becoming increasingly childlike. 

This childlike behavior can be attributed to a combination of physiological changes, psychological factors, and social dynamics, highlighting the complex challenges of aging.

With this childlike behavior, older adults often start relying more on others for assistance as they become more dependent. If you’re wondering when it might be time to consider personalized care for your loved one, speak with a healthcare provider who can offer guidance tailored to their specific needs.

Understanding and embracing these changes can help us provide the support and care our loved ones need as they navigate this phase of life. Together, we can help ensure their safety, well-being, and happiness.

What Does Childlike Mean?

Childlike behavior refers to the traits and actions that remind us of childhood, such as increased dependency, simplicity, playfulness, or a desire for comfort and care. Various factors, including physiological changes, psychological adaptations, and social interactions, can influence these behaviors. As individuals age, they face unique challenges that can impact their behavior and interactions with the world.

Physiological changes in the body can contribute to childlike behavior in older adults. These changes may affect cognitive functioning, memory, and physical abilities. Psychological adaptations, such as coping mechanisms or defense mechanisms, can also play a role in manifesting childlike behaviors.

Social interactions and dynamics with others can influence how older adults express their childlike tendencies, like seeking attention, relying on others for assistance, or engaging in playful interactions.

Why Do Older Adults Become Childlike?

Physical Decline 

Mobility issues, digestion problems, and hearing and vision impairments can make older adults feel vulnerable, frustrated, or even helpless. Some individuals may embrace their childlike behaviors to cope with these limitations and rely on caretakers for support, just like they did when they were young.

Cognitive Decline 

Cognitive decline can also cause older adults to behave more childlike. As people age, they may develop dementia, a general term for declining cognitive abilities, such as memory, attention, and language. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common type of dementia.

Dementia can cause confusion, disorientation, memory loss, and loss of judgment and reasoning, leading to age regression. Older adults may feel embarrassed or frustrated by their cognitive limitations and choose behaviors that are more comfortable for them.

Memory care in senior communities can support loved ones with dementia and Alzheimer’s with personalized care and physically, mentally, and socially engaging activities

A senior woman gazes out the window, spending her time alone at home, feeling a deep sense of sadness and isolation.

Social Isolation 

Many older adults living alone may experience social isolation, loneliness, and a lack of meaningful social interactions as they age. Isolation can lead to depression, anxiety, and a sense of disconnection. 

To cope with feelings of isolation, older adults may exhibit childlike behaviors warranting more dependency and intensifying the desire for connection and attention from others. Becoming childlike may include asking for help or attention more often, seeking physical touch, or initiating playful behavior.

Loss of Independence 

As people age, they may experience a loss of independence. Older adults may need assistance with daily basic tasks like dressing and eating, or they may no longer be able to go out without help. 

Loss of independence can be devastating and can lead to feelings of grief or depression. Older adults may adopt childlike behaviors that feel soothing and comforting, such as seeking affection or attention, acting more whimsical or carefree, or reverting to behaviors they had when they were younger.

Coping with Trauma 

Sometimes, when people go through tough times or experience trauma, they can revert to a childlike state as a way to cope. This trauma could be something recent, like losing a spouse or going through a health crisis. It could also be something from their past that they haven’t fully processed. Acting childlike in these situations can provide emotional safety and comfort. It’s like finding solace in a familiar and simpler time.

What to Do If a Loved One Becomes Childlike

If a loved one becomes childlike, it’s important to approach the situation with empathy and understanding, as it’s often because of an underlying cause not yet identified. 

Here are some ways you can help:

  • Remain composed and patient, understanding that their behavior is not intentional and may result from health issues or emotional needs.
  • Speak to a loved one with childlike behavior respectfully, with a gentle tone, and use simple language.
  • Try to understand their perspective and emotions. Empathize with their experiences and validate their feelings.
  • While being supportive, encourage as much independence as possible, which can contribute to their sense of self-worth and autonomy.
  • Encourage activities they enjoy, such as simple games, music, or other familiar pastimes.
  • Seek support from family members or friends. Share responsibilities and ensure everyone involved understands the best ways to provide care and companionship.
  • If the childlike behavior is from a medical or psychological condition, consult healthcare professionals for guidance and support.
  • If the behavior becomes challenging to manage or if there are underlying health concerns, consider hiring professional care or exploring assisted living facilities.

Caring for Aging Loved Ones 

It’s important to remember that older adults don’t become childlike by choice but rather as a way of coping with the physical, cognitive, emotional, and social changes that come with aging. Navigating the childlike behavior of a loved one requires patience, empathy, and an approach that considers their needs. 

If you think a loved one can benefit from support and care specific to their needs, contact us at Fox Trail Memory Care in South River to learn about our memory care program.

Ryan Donahue

Written by Ryan Donahue, Regional Vice President

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