SHIFT: Personality changes can signal deeper issues

Maybe my dad’s crumbling brain had freed him from the constraints he had put on himself all of his life.

Lisa Machado 7 minute read August 16, 2021
personality changes

People often notice changes in the personality and behaviour of someone they love. When should they be concerned? Getty

“It’s a fact of life. People change as they age. I don’t think this is anything more than that.”

The neurologist seemed tired. She was in her sixties, with grey hair and small round glasses that sat on the tip of her nose. Her white lab coat was a crisp white, the ironed creases on the arms sharp and pointy. She had tucked her stethoscope into one of the large side pockets, the black rubber eartips poking out of the top. Clipped to the other pocket was her hospital photo ID card — a bright yellow sticker with a smiley face hovered above her headshot, it read ‘Good Job!’

She was one of the top researchers in the field of degenerative brain diseases. This would be the third and — judging by the finality with which she closed my dad’s chart folder — last time she met with my parents to talk about his new and changing personality.

I had hopped up onto the examining table since there were only two chairs, and my dad refused to “be the patient.” I was a bit put off because the paper covering the table hadn’t been changed. It was wrinkled awkwardly from the person before us, and there a slight dent where their head and shoulders were, but nothing else — I wondered for a minute about what happened to the other half of their body.

It had been months of my dad behaving badly. He had stopped acquiescing to my mom’s requests for house repairs or to join her at lunches with her friends. He even grew a bit of a goatee — something unheard of in the thirty years I had known him. There were other things too. All of a sudden my soft-spoken father would raise his voice over little irritations, like waiting in line. He also took an unexpected liking to hats — weird, since he loved to spray his shiny salt and pepper hair into a nice poofy flip. He even declared that his retirement goal of reading the ten biographies sitting on his night table was over: instead, he opted to spend more time watching TV.

Still, none of it was enough to tweak the attention — or interest — of any doctor, even one who had known him most of his time here in Canada. And though all the scans and tests were normal, my dad’s behaviour got stranger — it was like he was turning into a different person.

This appointment felt like our last chance to dig deeper and get some real answers.

“If you don’t do something, they are going to get a divorce,” I said, the paper beneath me tearing as I emphatically gestured towards my parents who wouldn’t even look at each other. “Truly.”

She sighed.

She scribbled something on a pad of paper which she passed to my mom and opened the door to leave. “An antidepressant,” she said, crossing her arms as she took a deep breath.

“It sounds a little like depression. We see this all the time. Think about it, is it really that strange for someone to change their look and their likes?”

My mom and I wanted to believe that the medication would soothe my dad’s irritation. Maybe his goatee and hats were really simply an attempt to reboot his style and make a fashion statement, and the arguing about chores was just him trying out what it feels like to throw his weight around a bit. Besides, the doctor wasn’t wrong — people transform themselves all the time.

After the appointment, I called one of my parents’ long-time friends to share my worries about my dad. She scoffed kindly.

“There’s no way anything is wrong with your dad,” she said. “Look at us, we’re talking about selling the house and getting a trailer — isn’t that crazy? My hubby the homebody would never have done that five years ago.”

In fact, according to the experts, humans are in a state of flux all of the time in terms of behaviours and personalities. Over the years, ponytails become shaved heads, the overly accommodating put their feet down and the quiet become loud. And while seemingly sudden and dramatic to others — sometimes even to those experiencing them — these changes are completely normal, expected even.

“We are not the same person for the whole of our life,” René Mõttus, a psychologist from the University of Edinburgh, told the BBC in an article called, How your personality changes as you age. Author Zaria Gorvett notes several studies that show we move through the years transitioning into people who are more trusting and agreeable, less neurotic and with better senses of humour and more emotional control.

“People become nicer and more socially adapted,” said Mõttus. “They’re increasingly able to balance their own expectations of life with societal demands.”

But we don’t all change for the better. Gorvett refers to data collected from the Lothian Birth Cohorts in which people born in 1921 and 1936 had their personality traits and intelligence tracked as they aged. The data showed a different kind of shift in the older group’s personality traits — they became less extroverted and less conscientiousness. Intellect also showed a significant decline.

“I think this makes sense, because in old age things start happening to people at a faster pace,” Mõttus told the BBC, referring to the possibility of declining health, and the loss of friends and relatives. “This has some impact on their active engagement with the world.”

Cognitive psychologist Laura Jenkins also notes that aging brings on transitions: “We change in terms of warmth, self-growth and emotional stability,” she writes in Psychreg, an online psychology magazine. Jenkins refers to the theory of disengagement, developed by social scientists Elaine Cumming and William Earle Henry. This theory, also known as the first social science theory of aging, states that we withdraw — or disengage — from our relationships and activities as we grow older.

For sure, most of us don’t have to look far to find examples of people who have “changed.” Maybe it’s getting a new partner after years of a seemingly happy marriage, choosing a different profession, making a religion switch, or selling every belonging to move to Bora Bora. None of these seem overly crazy — in fact, we may even quietly envy them for their courage to shake things up a lot. Besides, most of the time, people putting into motion dramatic shifts in their lives is a really good thing — a sign of personal growth and a quest for life satisfaction.

Or not.

There are hundreds of conditions that can cause dramatic and noticeable changes in personality and behaviour. Mental health issues like anxiety disorders, schizophrenia, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and bipolar disorder can alter the way someone acts and how they make decisions. There are physical things too, like brain tumours, strokes, meningitis, Parkinson’s and concussions. And then there’s one of the most feared diseases of our time: Alzheimer’s, which, along with dementia, says Jenkins, may cause “fluctuations in personality stability” and make people “behave differently to what they once did.”

Unfortunately, my dad fell into the latter category. It took almost a year, but after my mom found him talking animatedly to the framed family photos lining the hallway in their house — pulling on his goatee with one hand and waving his straw hat with the other — an emergency MRI put it all to rest. He had not been rebooting his style — he was sick.

And my mom’s friend? Well, they never got the trailer, but they sold their house and started travelling to far away places. The last time I saw the wife, she had chopped off her wispy locks and was sporting very short hair.

It’s true, people do change as they age. We make different choices and try to jazz things up as we drift into the back end of our lives. We seek to fulfill the hopes and dreams we have been carrying around for a lifetime, no matter how crazy they may seem to others.

And maybe it was my dad’s crumbling brain that fooled him into thinking the time had come to grow the facial hair he had always said he hated, to stop worrying about having impeccable hair and yup, to not do anything he didn’t want to do. Or maybe, a small window had opened within him in a way that we don’t understand to free him from all the constraints that he had put on himself in his life — if only for a little while.

We’ll never know.

This story originally appeared in the Healthing weekender. Subscribe here.