On Meeting up with Elders: The Early Bird Special

Mary A. Languirand, PhD & Robert F. Bornstein, PhD

A friend told us the story of her mother's most recent visit. Her mom didn't drive, and planned to come by train. Our friend agreed to pick her up at the station and promised to be waiting when the train arrived. She showed up, as planned, 10 minutes before the train was due, only to find her mother shivering on the wind-swept platform, clutching her suitcase. She'd taken an earlier train, having arrived at her departure station well ahead of schedule. The inevitable "why didn't you call?" was met with protests that she was perfectly fine, didn't want to disturb her, and so on. Our friend's initial response was guilt, quickly followed by irritation, generating more guilt.

As we age, our capacity to judge time accurately diminishes: Most people begin to perceive time as passing more swiftly. This tendency is magnified significantly in the early phases of certain forms of dementia, when minutes start to feel like hours. However, the behavior isn't limited to people with dementia-many older folks become hyper-aware of how time is precious and fleeting, and not wanting to miss out on anything, even the most laid-back elders evolve into "early birds".

Other age-related factors contribute to this shift. Deteriorating night vision can lead to avoidance of rush hour traffic and crowds, while the need for frequent bathroom breaks may make your loved one insist on multiple pit stops everywhere you go. For some family members and friends these behaviors are seen as harmless quirks, good for the occasional joke about having dinner mid-afternoon. However, these quirks can actually lead to some significant stress, particularly when you're their primary source of transportation and support. When your own schedule is already overbooked, Dad's insistence on arriving for his doctor appointments half an hour early may grate on your nerves (especially if his doctor is notorious for running late….and whose isn't). A dozen phone calls to remind you of the appointment beforehand along with requests that you "hurry up" while en route may generate tension. So do frequent "what time is it getting to be?" queries while you sit in the waiting room, powerless to move things along.

It's hard not to resent Dad for getting you into this mess in the first place, and hard not to deliberately start running late on pickup days to regain control of the situation. So what can you do? Three things.

First, try to determine whether your loved one's "need for speed" is motivated by underlying worries about issues other than concern with timeliness. You may discover that Mom's fear of getting home late is actually due to concern about her dog, or that Dad's insistence on dining early is based on his need to save a few dollars. Addressing those issues may lead to much relief all around.

Next, set a realistic time schedule, review it as needed, and stick to it. If you know from experience that it takes Mom at least 10 minutes to put on her coat, lock the door, and put her keys in her purse, factor that into the schedule. Explain what you're doing: "Your appointment is at 10:00am. It takes 10 minutes to get out of the house, and 15 minutes to get there, so I'll be at your place at 9:20. We'll have plenty of time to get a parking space and hit the bathroom." While unforeseen circumstances may arise, stick with the plan; with sufficient repetition, your loved one will realize that you'll get where you need to be when you need to be there. (And if she wants to stand on the porch for a half hour before you arrive, that's her decision.)

Finally, review your own attitudes toward time. "Wasted" waiting room time can be a valuable opportunity for a one-on-one chat with your loved one. It can also be an opportunity to catch up on your reading, draft this year's holiday message, plan next week's menus, or text that friend with whom you've been meaning to re-connect. It can also be a brief interlude of relaxation for you to enjoy. A bit of reframing on your part can go a long way toward making a frustrating situation much more tolerable….for both of you.


Robert Bornstein and Mary Languirand are the authors of When Someone You Love Needs Nursing Home, Assisted Living, or In Home Care, published by Newmarket Press. The second edition, revised and updated, was recently released.
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