It’s quite the shock to wake up one day to notice that your grandfather has become a complete narcissist. It can help to understand how narcissism typically develops, but can it lie dormant for most of a person’s life and emerge only in their golden years?
We often associate aging with a progressive fading of emotional passions. We tend to see older people as kinder, gentler, less prone to anger. However, this isn’t always the case, and there have been reported instances of people even as old as 75 or 80 that suddenly present with symptoms of narcissistic personality disorder, according to the National Institutes of Health. I myself experienced this when my grandfather started having some health problems as he got older.
This also brings up some questions. How do narcissists deal with the process of aging? Does their narcissism transform as they confront different stages of life? Some narcissists seem to shed some of their tendencies as they age, while others seem to grow more attached to their narcissistic traits.
To find out more about the possibilities for late-life onset of narcissism, continue reading.
Older But Not Better
When my grandfather got sick with heart disease, he slowly but surely became more demanding and less aware of other people’s needs. He had always been very affectionate toward his family, particularly his grandchildren—there are only two of us, so we each received an abundance of attention—but that affection turned into a need for devotion to him and his needs. His stories, once so full of humor and references to his family and friends, became repetitive stories about all of the things that he had done in his life.
He talked endlessly about the war, his service to his country—and these stories became laced with bitterness, that he hadn’t gotten his due, that he had been overlooked and under-appreciated—and about his professional life, from which he’d retired a couple of decades before. Again, these stories were more about how he’d never been paid enough, that he was better than the other people he worked with, that he was smarter than his supervisors.
It was odd, this man I’d known all of my life, exhibiting some of the classic signs of narcissistic personality disorder. He had been so empathetic all his life, only to descend into his own peculiar universe. It was as if his heart troubles damaged his heart in other ways, not just physically. He could sometimes be the kind man we’d known before, but that part of him kept shrinking as he neared the end of his life.
Identity and Acceptance
Some studies suggest that late-in-life narcissism occurs because certain people aren’t quite ready to accept the aging process. Their identity is so steeped in those very things that start to get lost as we age, such as physical attractiveness or professional and intellectual achievements or health and heartiness. It seems that, if we rely too much on one particular version of ourselves, if that is lost or compromised by age, then a kind of late onset narcissism can easily take hold.
Still, the best approach in dealing with late life narcissism is to be patient and caring. Often this personality change is the result of health issues, including forms of dementia or other neurological diseases found mostly in aging brains (such as Parkinson’s disease). Narcissism, especially in cases like these, should not be seen as the sufferer’s fault but rather their affliction.
Love and understanding in this circumstance are perhaps better than avoidance, as you might do with someone who presents as a narcissist from an early age. It’s easier (and more humane) to have a relationship with an aging narcissistic grandfather than with a 30-something boyfriend.
Growing Older with Narcissism
The flip side to this issue is to examine how narcissists might change as they age. Is there a possibility to “age out” of the worst characteristics of narcissism? Or, does age actually heighten some of those symptoms? I think the answer is two-fold.
On the one hand, as the typical narcissist ages, they might become obsessed with the fading of their youth. Popular culture emphasizes the importance of youth and beauty, and the wellness industry promotes innumerable rituals, routines, products, and services designed to keep us looking and feeling young for as long as possible.
The narcissist is particularly vulnerable to these kinds of pitches, and these cultural signals may exacerbate the symptoms of their narcissism. If they see themselves aging, if they aren’t getting the kind of romantic attention they once garnered, if they no longer wield as much power in the workplace, then they can very easily become even more thin-skinned and defensive—not to mention controlling and domineering. Their star is waning, and they don’t like it one bit.
On the other hand, some narcissists may not be susceptible to this, because, as is at the core of narcissism, they still yet always see themselves as better than others. Their superiority complex may allow them to ignore the signs of aging.
These narcissists continue to cultivate a youthful appearance, dressing as they did years ago and keeping the same hairstyles and other habits that they established in young adulthood. Ironically, these narcissists will often also rely on a recounting of all of their many accomplishments—which mark their age—to inflate their egos. “Look at what I’ve done! I am pretty amazing.”
Still, most narcissists tend to soften as they age. Their narcissistic tendencies often become less pronounced, and they may have developed better strategies to adapt to social niceties—even if these aren’t wholly genuine, they do allow for more positive interactions with others.
This post can also help you identify whether your aging father is becoming more narcissistic. If you are dealing with an aging narcissist, there are some ways in which you can steer them in this more constructive direction. Encourage them to take pride in their experiences, rather than in their appearance, and remind them that they have much better coping skills than when younger.
Engage in healthy activities, such as entertaining forms of exercise or play, that will help them (and you!) to stay in shape and feel better about themselves. Basically, you can be a kind of mentor or role model for the aging narcissist—though never at your own expense.
Now that you have a better understanding of late stage narcissism, you might also want to learn more about what triggers narcissistic rage. This article can help you better understand the harm narcissistic grandparents can do to your children.
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