when older coworkers become forgetful and moody

Here’s an exciting new thing!  Each day this week, in addition to my regular posts, I’m also going to post an “ask the readers” question, throwing it out for you all to answer in the comments section. (And yes, this is a sneaky way for me to get you to help me with my mail backlog, but these are all questions that I think there will be lots of interesting input on.)

Here’s the first one:

What is your advice regarding elderly coworkers? I sit next to and deal with a lady who’s mental capacity seems to be declining. I just had her computer replaced. She’s having issues making the switch from one operating system to newest version of the same system. She’s getting moody, forgetful, and sometimes is just plain hard to work with. She’s about 10 years away from retirement age. Do you, or do your readers have any advice on handling the situation?

What’s your advice?

{ 126 comments… read them below }

    1. TeaBQ*

      THANK you. I’m not even near that age yet but I still wouldn’t call it elderly. Heck, even 60 something isn’t elderly these days.

    2. Piper*

      This! Unless she’s got early onset Alzheimers or some other form of dementia, it seems like it might be something else that’s the problem. My mom is less than 10 years away from retirement and I don’t consider her elderly nor is her mental capacity declining (and my Dad’s even closer to retirement and I can say the same for him). But, if this woman is anything like my mom, she’s just not quite as up-to-date with changing technologies and may need a little extra training with it. Remember, the Boomer generation was not born with cell phones in their hands like today’s Millennials.

    3. Liz*

      It is possible that “retirement age” might not mean actual age, but rather that the “elderly” has yet to work for the company long enough to be eligible for retirement benefits. Where I work, you could be 98 years old, but if you haven’t worked for the company for 30 or more years, you are not eligible to receive a retirement package from the company.

  1. Kev*

    Talk to HR before doing anything and get their input on handling it, that way you’re covered should she consider it age-discrimination.

  2. Gigi*

    I think you need to adjust the way you’re approaching this problem; these are issues that people of any age can have. Furthermore, not all folks who are close to retirement age struggle with these issues. Your question — forgive me if this was not your intent — comes off as somewhat ageist.

    Anyhow, why don’t you ask her what you can do to help her. If she’s forgetful, maybe you can give her written instructions/guidelines. If she’s being moody, ask her if you can come back to whatever task you’re working on when she’s feeling more focused. If this is just her personality, though, I don’t think a chat with her, her supervisor, or HR is going to change anything. Some people are just hard to work with. It’s a workplace reality and one that you have to hunker down and deal with sometimes.

  3. Suzanne*

    First of all, I’m in utter disgust that the OP would consider someone who is in her mid-50s to be elderly. Beyond that, try to be understanding. She may be going through menopause which can cause mood issues, she may be dealing with elderly parents, and she may just be a tad bit ticked at having to learn yet another operating system because, no doubt, in her career, she has seen a million of them, each one purporting to be the next, best thing. Trust me, many of us more “seasoned” workers are not averse to change, we simply dislike seemingly purposeless change.
    If you are concerned about early onset dementia (because this would be early) ask her how she’s feeling or if things are good at home. She may realize something is wrong and is terrified. Your co-worker’s job may be the only thing keeping her afloat financially and losing her job because you think she old and geezerly could cause more problems than you can imagine. And keep in mind that before long, you, too, will be an “elderly” worker.

    1. Anonymous*

      ^^This most definitely.

      And my addition…

      OP – Not everyone is a computer whiz kid. If your coworker is not used to computers but grew accustomed to the old one, the new one might be throwing her for a loop. I have seen people in their 20s and in their teens get all upset when Microsoft Word changed from the drop-down menus to those tabs, and no one could figure out where anything was at first. It may very well be a frustration she is having with the computer because she was used to the older system. So instead of calling her elderly or a 50-some-odd year old person who is becoming demented, offer to help. Is there any way you and/or your company can offer some sort of tutoring help for those not understanding the new system or at least offer to send them to a place free of charge where they can learn? Instead of complaining about the mood, get to the root of the problem and find out why your coworker is a little more than discontent.

          1. Diana*

            It’s mostly a matter of not knowing where something is that causes the hate. “I know Word can do X, why can’t I find that function anymore?”

            I took an online (questionable, I know!) class which went through all the ribbons and I don’t mind them anymore because I can make the program do what I wanted it to do.

            1. fposte*

              I’d add the time consumption involved to do stuff while you’re on the learning curve. I’m surprised there isn’t more attention given to the drain on productivity that’s the consequence of the rapid pace of work-tool upgrades. You need a factor like the refinancing calculators–how long will it take the improvements of the new software/system/protocol to earn you back the productivity lost during the changeover?

        1. Anonymous*

          And now I can add some in their 30s to the list! haha

          I’m in my late 20s, and while I hated them at first, I figured out their organization so when I have to use a computer with the old menus, I get confused!

          But shhhh! If we say we’re confused, we might be called elderly!

    2. Lynda*

      Yeah, despite all the diversity training, a common view is that someone in their mid fifties is “past it”. If the “elderly coworker” (rolls eyes) has living parents, as well as children and grandchildren, she’s possibly providing support to 2 generations at once and the fancy! new ! system may be the straw that broke the camel’s back.

  4. Anonymous*

    55ish is not elderly (I think someone could benefit from Diversity training). Maybe she is just in a foul mood because there are things going on outside of work and then you up and changed her OS on her and it’s different enough to be an extra challenge to figure out. This would make anyone grumpy, especially someone not born with a keyboard and mouse as appendages.

    For the computer issue it sounds like she could benefit from training. “…mental capacity seems to be declining” I would like to hear more evidence to this than just being “elderly” and frustrated with a new OS.

  5. Sally Go Lightly*

    Hmm. This is a hard one without more concrete examples to go for besides the computer thing. Here’s why: but please indulge me the caveat of saying this obviously is not true for every single individual but just a trend I have noticed based on my own personal experience. I’m 38. I’ve worked with people significantly older and significantly younger. Geezer that I am, we didn’t even use email or the Internet when I was in undergrad and really didn’t use computers for much more than word processing. That said, I’m not afraid to play around with them and make mistakes, and I generally tend to figure out how to do things, even if I don’t know how to do them immediately. But it’s not immediate—it’s more like computers are my second language—but something like Spanish, that shares a common alphabet and isn’t too much of a stretch.

    Then there’s my co-worker Jason, who is 25. He grew up with computers, and things that might take me half an hour to figure out take him just a few minutes. He’s essentially bilingual, and it just comes to him more naturally.

    My six-year-old nephew—they’re practically his first language. He uses them more naturally than anyone, any age in the family, and he may speak computer better than English.

    But my parents—and people older? They struggle. And I’ll admit it’s sometimes annoying and frustrating when I’ve explained to them a billion times how to do something really basic and they still don’t get it. Usually I end up giving up trying to teach them and just do it for them. Because basically, this stuff isn’t just another language to them—it’s a whole different alphabet. Computers are Mandarin.

    And like language—some people have a more natural proficiency or inclination toward languages—so maybe whatever age you are, you’re awesome at learning Spanish or Mandarin or whatever, but maybe whatever age you are, you stink at it.

    But if you’re not naturally proficient at it—and all of a sudden you’re expected to learn Mandarin really quickly, and you’re pushed into a situation where someone explains it to you once and then you’re supposed to get it—well yeah, you’re going to get moody, and frustrated, and you’re going to forget stuff. So—it’s hard to answer your question about your co-worker. Does he/she forget his/her address, phone number, what day it is, why he/she walked into a room, co-workers’ names, etc.? Sorry to say, at 38, I have been guilty of all of these.

    If the moodiness takes the form of throwing the computer monitor across the room, that’s bad. If it takes the form of occasionally cussing out the computer, eh…It happens. Cut him/her some slack.

    And of course, if it’s more than just the computers, well just disregard everything I’ve written here.

    1. Suzanne*

      Absolutely, Sally GL! I’m pretty good with computers, but it does take me longer than a younger person. Heck, when I was in school, we didn’t even have word processors! So, yeah, learning how to use a computer has been exactly like learning a second language–except that they keep changing the language every few years so you have to relearn it over and over and over…

    2. Kat*

      Aah, I should have read your post before I posted mine. It’s on the same lines, and at 39 *gah* I am the same with the forgetfulness of quite ordinary, mundane things. (Which again, makes me moody.)

    3. Rana*

      Heck, it’s not even a generational thing; it’s a personal thing. My father, who is an engineer, was building computers from kits when I was a kid, and knows computers inside and out. Some of the students I taught in college (so 18-22-year-olds) were freaked out by the email system.

      Re: the OP – I find it a bit odd that the OP took it upon themselves to order a replacement computer for someone else, without, apparently, asking if that would be welcome or helpful.* That would make me “moody” and “hard to deal with” too!

      *Obviously, if the OP is the woman’s boss, that’s one thing. But it sounds to me like they’re just co-workers, in which that seems oddly presumptuous.

      1. chris*

        If its a windows upgrade it may be related to the network architecture.

        But its not unreasonable to expect someone to upgrade with the rest of the group. I still get people on occasion who email me with “I can’t seem to open this file.” 99.9% of the time its a .docx or. xlsx and in 5 years since the release of Office 2007, they haven’t upgraded OR installed the compatitibility plug in.

        And even with these upgrades….most things still work the same. The terminology hasn’t changed. Even in the new versions of MS office its still “save as” not like “commit to file system.” Ya know?

    4. khilde*

      Sally – this is an excellent, excellent analogy of differences in technology “language.” May I have your permission to use a few excerpts (specifically, those paragraphs where you used you, your nephew, etc.) in a training class I do about generations? It’s difficult to give examples like this that everyone can understand – yours is brilliant. Many thanks!

  6. E*

    If it’s the new computer she’s having problems with, offer help with simple tasks. If it’s something more complex, even if you know how to do it, refer her to your IT department or a colleague who might be more of an “expert.” If you’re helpful, but make it clear that you can’t and won’t solve every problem, she’ll catch on.

    1. Mary Sue*

      I like this, however my suggestion considering the tone of the OP’s post is that before you offer this help, check your ego at the door. Just as everyone has different speeds and styles of learning, everyone teaches differently. So if your coworker isn’t getting something you think is simple, you can’t get angry and frustrated with them, you instead need to step back and approach it from a different angle.

      (Everything I need to know about business I learned while teaching kindergarten.)

  7. Riki*

    – What’s the retirement age in your area? 95??? Where I live, it’s 65, which would put this woman’s age in the mid-50s. That is hardly elderly. Perhaps she is suffering from early onset Alzheimer’s but that’s pretty rare.

    -How big of an OS switch are we talking here? Did she get an entirely new computer? Some people get too used to one thing and have problems adapting, even the youths! My 20-something friend can navigate a Mac with her eyes closed. Put her in front of a PC and it would take her all day to get comfortable. Just because it’s a no brainer to you doesn’t mean it’s a no brainer for everyone else. Maybe she just needs some training. Maybe it’s her eye sight that’s the problem and she needs a bigger monitor.

    -Has she always been moody, forgetful and hard to work with? How involved is she with your work? Some people are just unpleasant. This isn’t an age thing, just a crappy personality thing.

    -What’s the real issue here? Is it a personality clash or are you really concerned about her mental health? Do you just not like “elderly” people? I think you should figure that out first before you do anything else.

    1. Elizabeth*

      Your third point is what I thought of, too. I wonder if the OP has known this woman for long enough to know what her personality was like five years ago. If they’ve only worked together for a few months, and the coworker was nice at first and now is moody – that could just be the honeymoon period ending, or the computer issues frustrating her.

  8. Anon*

    My boss is elderly (mid-70’s). She often forgets things I’ve told her, or worse, things she’s told me, advice she’s given, processes she’s changed. I was hoping for some advice from your readers, but they seem to just be jumping on the OP without complete information.

    1. fposte*

      You’re giving specific examples and you’re talking about somebody who’s genuinely elderly, so you’re in a different situation than the OP. Can you start regularly confirming stuff with her by email and then refer back to those emails when the topic comes up in conversation? That could help keep a structure viable even if she doesn’t reliably remember it (I find this useful just in general, to be honest). What’s the rest of the workplace like–do other people have to deal with this too, or is it just you?

      1. Riki*

        ITA. Document everything. After a discussion, send your boss an email summarizing key points and ask her to confirm via email. At the very least, you’ll have some written proof both this thing was discussed and she signed off on it. This works with people who are genuinely forgetful (for any reason) and people who are “forgetful” because they are high maintenance flakes. You really have no control over another person’s health issues or personality quirks, but you can take steps to cover your butt.

    2. Long Time Admin*

      Anon, I’ll bet your boss doesn’t like being reminded that she already told you what-ever, or that you told her what-ever. She might even argue with you about it. This makes it SO MUCH harder to deal with. My mother was the same way, so I do know what you’re talking about.

      Know this: there is a limit to what you can do, and to what you can/should put up with. You’re not her care-giver or her babysitter, and if you feel your job is going in that direction, you might have to make a decision about staying in your job or finding another one.

      For now, I agree with the person who said to document everything with follow-up emails. It won’t help her to remember, but at least you’ll know you’re not the forgetful one.

      I just realized that I’ve been talking as though your boss is THE boss, and maybe you’re working organization is different (larger) than that. If you are in a company that has an HR dept., you can talk to them about this. Or if your boss’s boss is an understanding sort of person, try her/him.

      I hope some of this helps you.

  9. Kat*

    In the generation before mine it seems that many administrative workers don’t deal well with change, especially changes such as computer systems/programs. I was the young kid when Windows replaced DOS and the gripes and resistance to change from my seasons co-workers made me look like an expert and team player. It may be not that she’s forgetful, but that she just doesn’t grasp the differences. (I know that when I switch from Word for Windows at work to Word for Mac at home, I get frustrated that all the things/shortcuts I know work for Windows but not Mac. I can get pretty moody dealing with that frustration, and that just may be her problem.) Maybe, if she is moody toward you, it could be that you aren’t teaching her in a way that benefits her knowledge of the new system/program. Again I can get pretty moody if I think I’m not getting something someone teaches me.

    The letter writer didn’t specify if these issues were around before the change of the system or not. Now having dealt with someone who was starting to truely be forgetful to the fact that her impeccable work product started slipping little by little (but things suck as missed grammar, words left out, etc.), that was very difficult to deal with because it was something no one wanted to bring up to make her feel incompetent.

  10. Anonymous*

    It’s really unclear what the OP’s relationship to this woman is. Just a random coworker? Then it’s not his problem, and he needs to learn to say “I can’t help you right now, I have too much of my own work to do”.

  11. Anonymous*

    I am an “elderly” woman of 56. When my company switched to Office 2010 a year ago I was asked to do a training for the 20 and 30 somethings on how to use it because it was too different from the older versions of Office that we were using. They just couldn’t figure it out. Instead of cursing the immaturity and lack of focus from these young people, I used patience and knowledge to teach them.

  12. Charles*

    As one of those “elderly” folks, I would like to say . . .

    hmmmm . . . oh, I forget what I as going to say

    So, nevermind.

    oh, wait, yes it was to call you, OP, an ageist asshat!

    P.S. AAM, you seem to call people out when they use the formal polite address of “ma’am” and yet you let this ageist crap slip by without a word from you? I am, frankly, dissappointed.

      1. Charles*

        Hey, yourself. Your choosing not to answer is no excuse to let ageist crap slip by, based upon my reading of your blog you would not have let an anti-woman comment slip past. Nor would you have written the title of the post that agrees with calling those of us in our 50s “elderly.” As you often say, it takes just one comment . . . and as one can see by the commenters; most folks do get that.

        Sorry to be harping on this, AAM, but as one who 50+ and looking for work it gets very frustrating to run into this ageist crap all the time. (great resume, or at least good enough to get me to the phone screening, great phone screening, or at least good enough to be invited to the in-person interview, then bam! in-person interview ends very quickly when the interviewer realizes that they are NOT dealing with a “younger” person. Oh, and let me tell you far too many folks do NOT have a great poker face, especially, when they let it slip out “OMG! WHEN? did you graduate? – you see I have a BA, year not listed on resume, from the late 70s ; yet a master’s degree in the last 5 years, year listed on resume – so, many interviewers think that they are dealing with someone in their 20s until they see my gray hair)

        So, thanks for condoning ageist crap, first, by your silence, second, by your title of the post. (That thanks is sarcasm, BTW, something us “older” folks handle well, possibly due to our years of life experiences)

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          I’m sorry you’re dealing with that, and I can see why you’re frustrated. And at some point I’ll weigh in here in the comments myself, just like I usually do with these “ask the reader” posts, but I haven’t so far for reasons that have everything to do with other stuff I’m working on and nothing to do with not having an opinion. (And actually, I intentionally used the word “older” in the title, not “elderly,” since I thought that was a more accurate way to sum up what the OP was saying.)

  13. K.A.T.*

    As someone who’s in the middle of her gerontologic nursing rotation, I’d like to caution that memory and mood changes aren’t endemic to aging. If a coworker who is an actual older adult is having problems, especially with mood changes that seem like something more than could be explained by external circumstances (having a bad day, family problems, etc.) then there could be an actual medical problem or something similar. The same goes for memory issues. I don’t know what retirement age means in this context, but it’s a myth that memory necessarily goes south upon aging. I would wonder if it was a sign of something else going on.

    That being said, as the career I left was in IT, someone having trouble making the switch from one OS to a newer version is not indicative of anything whatsoever and is in reality incredibly common. We spent a significant amount of time at my last company just planning and supporting our upgrade of the Microsoft Office suite because users need support with change.

    PS. I like to go by my initials but I’m different than Kat who has already commented, just in case there is any confusion? I’m an infrequent commenter so I’d hate to be impolite.

    1. SJ*

      Oh, I was writing my comment below when you posted this – great post! I totally didn’t think about medical issues beyond dementia, I was just focused on what my own experience taught me. Good call.

    2. Kat*

      Hi K.A.T. It’s the Kat from up yonder.

      And I totally agree with you. I have frequent memory issues, lapses which sometimse freak me out until I hear how others have them. Mine are usually caused by stress, but believe me I can’t even count all the times I’ve attributed it early onset dementia (and I’m just 39).

      1. Laura L*

        I have memory issues ALL THE TIME. And have since I was a teenager. And I’m only 27!

        Mine are definitely usually caused by stress or chronic anxiety. Ah well. I’ve learned to write things down so I don’t forget them. The upside is that if I’m anxious about something, I will never forget it!

      2. Mary Sue*

        Memory lapses are also a symptom of depression, which can go along with moodiness.

        Of course, it’s also a symptom of pregnancy.

        Just pointing out memory lapses are not always dementia.

  14. SJ*

    Before everyone gets their girdles too tight, let’s give OP the benefit of the doubt. OP works with this woman every day, and says her mental capacity ‘seems to be declining,’ and she’s ‘GETTING moody and forgetful.’ This suggests she was not previously this way, which is indeed potentially worrisome.

    OP – how long have you worked with her? Is this moodiness and forgetfulness present only when she’s trying to deal with the new OS? If so, learning new things and embracing change is enough to drive anyone a little nuts – it’s so frustrating to be stopped every few minutes because you don’t know how to proceed. Obviously it shouldn’t be taken out on other coworkers or poison the work environment, but what are you going to do, no one’s perfect. If that’s the case, I like the idea of telling her you’re right in the middle of something and really busy. If helping her arrests your productivity, that’s not good for you or the company, and shouldn’t be your responsibility.

    If, however, this is a relatively new behavior beyond the scope of the updated OS, or has come on gradually but increasingly, she could very well be starting to suffer from premature dementia or even early-onset Alzheimer’s, regardless of her actual age. I have worked with a population dealing with these issues, and my own grandmother had early-onset Alzheimer’s that came on, we suspect, in her mid-forties (and went undiagnosed for decades!). Personality changes and forgetfulness are common symptoms; indeed, we couldn’t figure out why my grandmother turned into a mercurial woman prone to snapping at and blaming people.

    As for how to deal with it, well…I’m sorry that I am not the expert in how to approach your manager/boss about it. Perhaps explain what’s going on (sticking strictly to how you have to help her, not that she’s forgetful and moody) and how it is interrupting your productivity and ask to be moved? And that being in an office where someone else is coming in to assist her all the time would be equally distracting? If she is in the beginning stages of Alzheimer’s or dementia, I don’t feel this is an area you should address at work – it’s a personal issue for which those in her personal life should be responsible. Obviously, if it gets worse and is going unnoticed, then say something, but at this point I don’t know that it would be wise to talk to a manager/boss about it – especially if it could be something like, as other posters have speculated, menopause.

    As for interacting with her – after explaining tons of things to a population with these issues, this has worked pretty well for me. As long as you are talking to them respectfully and like you expect them to understand, it’s been my experience that they won’t be offended. This might be a LITTLE too slow and simple for her, but this is what I’ve done:
    1) Explain the first step. The first SINGLE step, not the first process to a solution. I.e., ‘Click on the ‘file’ menu at the top of the window.’
    2) Look at them and receive an affirmation that they understand this single step (or until it’s completed). It may take a second for them to process and then say something like, ‘Uh huh,’ or, ‘okay.’ But WAIT until you get this (or until it’s completed).
    3) Repeat 1 with the next step; repeat 2; and so on until the instruction is complete.

    This is the only way I found that I could explain things to people with progressive, sometimes serious cognitive problems that would satisfy their request. Try not to get defensive or offended by her moodiness – if these unpleasant aspects are being caused by cognitive issues, I’ve found that it is much, much easier to be patient and understanding when someone is rude or downright insulting. You just have to bear in mind that it’s not a lack of self-awareness that’s making them rude, it’s a medical issue, and not only that, but THEY probably know something is not quite right and don’t like what’s happening any more than you do.

    1. Elizabeth*

      I’m also not an expert in how to talk to your boss about it, but Alison’s frequent advice is to focus on how the problem is affecting your work. If the coworker seems to have trouble completing the parts of her work that you aren’t involved with, let her manager deal with that – if they are good, they will notice. If, on the other hand, you now have less time to spend on your work because you are playing tech support for your coworker all the time, and now you’re having trouble getting your tasks done – tell your boss that, and ask what you should prioritize.

  15. Seal*

    Let’s ignore the fact that the OP thinks someone in their 50s is “elderly” (per Social Security full retirement age is 66 if you were born before 1960, which makes someone 10 years away from full retirement 56…NOT ELDERLY!). The real issue seems to be that the OP is finding their coworker increasingly hard to work with and thinks a recent upgrade of their computer might be a contributing factor. Assuming that is indeed the case, the first thing to do is make sure the coworker has the appropriate training and/or resources necessary to help them transition to their new computer. I’ve been through a number of upgrades on various operating systems and software over the years and most of the time the IT people just assume that people will figure it out for themselves. Some people can, but many more can’t, which leads to lots of frustration and cranky coworkers until everyone’s up to speed.

    As far as older coworkers or employees go, the bottom line is not their age but whether or not they can do the job. I had an older coworker who recently had no choice but to retire because he steadfastly refused to learn basic computer skills, which had long been a requirement for his job. Although he did some parts of his job well, too often other people had to pick up the slack because he didn’t know how to do things like create a simple spreadsheet in Excel. Our boss (with support from HR) finally sat him down and told him that his options were to either take classes to learn the necessary skills by a certain date (on company time and on their dime) or be terminated; he chose to retire.

    1. Ellen M.*

      ^^ This is what I was thinking too. With SO many people out of work, who would either already know how to do what needs to be done, or would have the ability/flexibility to learn it, someone who is unable or unwilling to learn what needs to be learned , whatever his/her age, is in grave danger of losing his/her job.

      I have known people who chose retirement rather than adapt, as is described above, and I have seen people get fired because they just refused to adapt to a change in their work environment. Some were older (actually elderly) but others were not.

  16. Under Stand*

    I am not…..Errrr…..What was I saying?… Hey, stop trying to tell me what I was talking about!

    Seriously, with the limited information that we have, it is hard to address this question. It COULD be an actual medical issue, it COULD be that you are just really annoying her, it COULD be that she is frustrated because your company likes to use software named after a part of a building rather than a noble cat! Seriously, that last one is possible. I detest the latest version of that operating system and hate that our company chose to upgrade… lost where all the programs that I used everyday were and the ones that I found do not work exactly the same; it is all very frustrating. It is possible that she is embarrassed by not remembering something. It is normal human reaction to strike out at someone else in that situation to deflect the attention from herself. Now as to what you can do, here is an idea: without seeming to be pretending to not know where stuff is, let her know that it was really frustrating for you how they moved this or that around in the operating system. Basically it says “Hey, it is not just you; this software really messed with me too”. And one more thing, unless she is planning on retiring at 70, do not refer to her as “elderly” (and for that matter even if that is the case do not refer to her that way). NOTHING irks us more senior members of society off than some whipper snapper calling us old!

  17. Editor*

    As someone who’s older than the woman who’s struggling with her computer, let me say these things.

    1. Before worrying about early-onset Alzheimer ‘s, I would want to check for drug interactions. It wouldn’t be surprising for someone her age to be taking multiple medications and possibly trying vitamins or over the counter supplements. If a family member has died recently, her physician may well have prescribed something to help her sleep. She might have developed sleep apnea. Try to tactfully find out what she’s upset about, and ask if she’s talked to her doctor and pharmacist. She could also be facing divorce, cancer, problems with her parents, problems with her kids, or any of a number of other issues that are upsetting and might impair sleep, and therefore memory.

    2. Find out what your co-worker’s learning style is. I prefer to read about new software along with learning it, and my employer has never provided a hard copy manual in living memory. Training is a lecture with some hands-on work, sometimes some follow-up with the trainer (for specialty software, not Microsoft products), then you’re on your own. Online help systems aren’t always well indexed and may assume knowledge the user doesn’t have.

    3. Ask about muscle memory. Were things so automatic before she didn’t think about them, and now every time she has to think about them (that’s part of the hassle with going from drop-downs to tabs, for instance). Can you provide step-by-step information on how to do things, or are you contributing to confusion by giving her a quick description of a process and possibly leaving out a detail that is second nature to you?

    4. Walk her through something and document as you go. This is excruciating for the trainer, but what you are doing is having her do each click and process while you tell her what to do and watch. This helps her see what she has to do and gives her a feel for the muscle action and the screen views. It also allows you to see and document the kinds of mistakes she tends to make.

    5. Document her problems discreetly to see if you can spot a problem. Is she better in the morning and worse in the afternoon? Better after the weekend but worse toward the end of the week? Troubled by getting a document set up, but then OK typing it when she’s in the email or word processing?

    Finally, people who are telling you the mid-50s aren’t old are right. But this woman also knows that as far as employers are concerned, 55 is old.

    Please understand that there is no safety net for a woman who’s 55 and on her own. She’s young enough to work but too old to get another job easily (particularly one that pays better), too young for Social Security, way too young for Medicare, and probably too poorly paid over her career to have a large retirement fund.

    She probably shouldn’t retire until she’s 66 or older, because the age for full Social Security is going up. If she loses her job, she may have to live without health insurance for more than a decade. Please try to see her options through her eyes.

  18. chris*

    OMG no! DO NOT offer to help. And do not under any circumstances volunteer to write an operating system manual!
    Once you go down that road…there’s no going back. No “older” worker wants to fess up that they can’t use the new OS. Trust me, trying to talk thrpugh someone getting to the control panelnand installing a printer driver will take half your day. Then you’ll say…gee, it’ll be faster if I do it myself. Next day you’ll get “why doesn’t this file open?” Or “how do I fix a typo in my pdf” or the dreaded,” is your email going through?” Unless you want to live in “older worker” and computer hell for the rest of your days you can a.) Ignore it. B.) Suggest she ask IT for help with training or C.) Say you use Linux and you have no clue.
    I’M not saying everyone needs to be an expert but if this lady is showing visible frustratration with a graphical user
    interface oS, you do not want to get involved with that.Its not like anyone is expecting her to learn the command line syntax from scratch. Nope, this is one of those little things huge annoyances are made out of. Push the ignore buttonand walk away.n

    1. Under Stand*

      OK, great! I use linux at home and lion on my laptop. LEARNED BOTH JUST FINE THANK YOU VERY MUCH!!!! Windows flavor of the month on the other hand…. Well it stinks! Get used to how they do something and they completely change it.

      Oh, and you do realize that Linux comes with GUI’s too don’t you?

    2. Anonymous*

      Yes, I had to do that with my coworker. He just couldn’t get it. Too much unlike his iPhone! He’s 27. I’m 54.

      The breakthrough came when I realized his learning style was visual and experiential. I walked him through it once again and INSISTED he write it down. He did eventually get that task. Sadly though, there were other problems and in the end he was let go.

      As a IRL dog trainer, I have been taught to assume that when the subject fails to comprehend the task, it is ALWAYS ALWAYS the FAILURE of the TRAINER not the trainee! Stop training immediately, examine what went wrong, make a new plan, then give it another go. And of course, keep in mind that adults learn differently than children. You can Google that and get some ideas on how to communicate more effectively with your coworker.

  19. Laurie*

    Lol. I was thinking the same thing. 10 years pre-retirement is NOT old! I am late-20s, and I have had the privilege of working with a 65-year old boss for the past 4 years. He will be retiring in a couple of months, and let me tell you, he is as sharp as they come. He could pick up new software, mess around on his computer, figure out his way around new gadgets etc without a hitch. I also work in a company that retains workers for a long time, so most of the people I work with regularly are 50+, and a good number are over 60. And all smart as heck. So. It’s not the age. It’s this particular co-worker you are working with.

    Also, I personally know 20-year olds who hate having to learn new software. So, again. Not this person’s age, but her general comfort with and aptitude for software. Best you can do is ask her how she prefers to learn new software and/or be trained in something new in general, and follow those steps to help her perform her job better.

  20. Julia*

    Whether or not “old” is a good description (disclaimer: I’m 56 and I once hired a really smart 70 year old), the OP is still dealing with someone who is not coping with change and, more worrying, is “getting forgetful”. The cause could be medical, personal, or just a lack of training – who knows? But I’d think it would be appropriate for OP to at least raise the issue with their manager or with HR so that they’re aware of the extra burden. If the coworker IS suffering from declining mental capacity, it isn’t feasible for OP to protect her indefinitely, and meanwhile OP’s productivity will drop while he/she deals with the issue.

    We don’t know what coworker’s personal circumstance are or whether she “needs” the job (or whether – like many of us – she maybe works in some part of the world where health insurance isn’t an issue), but I don’t think it’s really fair to expect OP to weigh all that up. OP’s resposibility is to do their job and to draw attention to anything that might cause problems with that.

  21. EngineerGirl*

    There could be a LOT of reasons the coworker is cranky, and not enough information has been provided to really determine why. Instead of investigating root cause, it appears that the OP has decided that the root cause is “elderly”. Not only is that determination useless toward problem solving, but is ridiculously ageist. People don’t get forgetful because they are “old”, but beecause of some other underlying factor. The same could be said for moodiness. It might be worth while to do a little more digging to find out what is behind it.

    I’m also wondering why the OP replaced the woman’s OS. Was that their job? It doesn’t sound like they are in a position of management over the OP. I know that if a peer took it upon themselves to touch my OS without first coordinating it with me, I would be very angry. These sorts of changes come with a cost, and need to be coodinated ahead of time for a smooth transition. I’ve had OS changes forced on me several times by our IT department that ended up breaking several tools I and my customers were using. Thats not something you want to deal with when you have a deadline looming! That same IT group couldn’t understand that a fix 3 months down the road was crippling. Tell me OP, did you coordinate the computer changes with her? If you didn’t you were incredibly disrespectful. That could well be the reason for her “moodiness”.

    There could be other issues behind it. Menopause changes cause many women to lose sleep. That, coupled with bratty teenagers and aging parents (with their own needs) could be creating a perfect storm for the employee. She could be physically exhausted. Or… it also could be early onset dementia. You really don’t know, OP, but seem to have already decided what the diagnosis is.

    The problem, OP, is that you haven’t bothered to do your homework to find out what is really going on. You’ve made snap judegements. I suspect that this is making things worse.

    You really need to go talk to the woman in a respectful manner and find out what is going on. It could start out with “Hi X, Do you have time to talk? Yes? It seems to me that you’ve been upset lately. I could be wrong, but that is just my impression. If that is the case, I was wondering if I was contributing to it somehow.”. Then sit back and LISTEN. Do NOT get defensive and argue. Just listen. The results of that conversation will take you to the next step.

    BTW. I am also 10 years away from retirement. I am considered one of the top compter people in my group. So age has nothing to do with computer literacy.

    1. Under Stand*


      You were spot on in so many of your comments. I CANNOT tell you how frustrating it is when forced upgrades break tools and they were warned it would break but did not want to wait until the tool was fixed to do the upgrade but want to blame you when productivity is down because you have to use a 12 step work around because of the broken tool.

      Yes, I am cranky. I try not to take it out on others but if they are being stupid about something they caused, I have no problem saying it with out fear of being labeled “moody”. Did it yesterday when someone changed data and did not understand that it would require redoing all the work we had spent a day doing that had been finished 1 hour BEFORE they changed the data.

    2. Piper*

      Heck, I’m in my early 30s and I’m cranky right now. I’m in the process of relocating out of state, in my last semester of grad school, working full-time, and still have other life-related stresses and responsibilities.

      Do I get stressed and forgetful? Do I feel like my head is cloudy sometimes and I just can’t get moving? Yes. But I’m not elderly nor do I have dementia. I’m just stressed and have lot going on. And I work in a technology-driven field, but sometimes I just don’t feel like dealing with another change. Age has nothing to do with it. /rant.

      Point is, you never know what someone is going through. Snap judgements don’t help anyone’s cause nor do they uncover the root of the problem because they are based on assumptions. And well, you know what they say about assuming, right?

  22. Suzanne*

    I’m envious of all the commenters who talk about getting a new OS and the company providing training. Wow! That hasn’t happened to me in years! It’s just a wing and a prayer and a “figure it out”. “Training? You don’t need no stinking training!” Probably my co-workers have thought me a cranky old lady, too, whenever there is an upgrade!
    Seriously, I hope the OP takes some time to understand what the heck is going on with this woman instead of writing her off as an old geezerette. I’ve had to look for work after 50, and that mentality is killing so many middle aged workers who lost jobs and can’t get a foot in the door because hiring managers believe, like the OP, that after 50, we’ve all lost our work ethic as we begin the coast to retirement or are tottering on the edge of dementia.

  23. jennie*

    Funny how “elderly” is such a loaded word. It just means old or past middle age but obviously people are pretty sensitive about it.
    Think of the root word “elder”, someone whose knowledge and experience benefits others, and maybe it won’t seem so bad.

  24. Jamie*

    “She’s having issues making the switch from one operating system to newest version of the same system.”

    If this is the criteria then I have users from 21-60 who are elderly.

    This isn’t an age thing. It’s a “I hate change so I will be a PITA while adjusting” thing.

  25. Geezer*

    55 is not old!!! I lost a very good position that I put my heart and soul in to simply because I was working with younger employees with a very very different outlook on work life. Work to them is “friendship” , texting, and socializing. Work to me is getting the job done, then having fun. I also don’t like to drink or gamble, or do drunkin “lap” dances at a local casino after hours…can you imagine????? I love to learn, maybe not as quickly as in the past, but still love it!!! So you twenty somethings, think before you squeek!!!! You will be in the same position in the not so distant future.

  26. The Other Dawn*

    I wonder what OP would think of my organization – almost everyone if 50 or older. Four out of fourteen people are under 50.

    But seriously, I agree that she may be having trouble adjusting to a new operating system. I’m in my thirties and it seemed to take me forever to learn Vista, then Windows 7. I was annoyed a lot. It’s also possible she has a medical problem, like early onset dementia or Alzheimer’s as someone mentioned. Talk to her as a concerned coworker and see how she’s doing.

  27. Nichole*

    At the risk of falling into devil’s advocate territory, whether the coworker is “elderly” or not, how is it the OP’s problem that she feels cranky? Going through menopause, hearing and vision problems, or anything else that happens as you age does not give you a free pass to be difficult. The OP wasn’t exactly sensitive (at least that’s how it looks with no explanation of why the OP thinks this person’s behavior is related to age), but regardless of your age, you should be expected to maintain a minimal standard of professionalism. When your coworkers find you hard to work with, you may not be doing that.

    IMHO, saying something to the coworker to the effect of “Look, it’s not my fault you’re having a bad day, so I suggest you adjust your attitude” would be appropriate-adjust the phrasing to suit the level of PC in your office and your relationship with the coworker. If taking it up the chain, be ready with specific examples of why this is a business related concern, like if she’s being rude to customers as well, or refuses to cooperate on projects. It isn’t management’s problem if you just don’t like her anymore. Whether you can handle it directly or take it to the manager, leave her age out of it and treat it as an interpersonal problem, not an age issue, because her age related issues are none of your business.

    1. Katie*

      Thank you for this response. I’ve been flabbergasted at the way people jump all over OP, to the point that I’ve reread the question several times to see what was so offensive. I’ll admit, the word elderly was probably not the correct term to use, but people are taking this WAY to personally–just because you’re capable at 56 doesn’t mean everyone is. It’s not good to generalize or stereotype, so I do agree that perhaps age should never have factored into the equation at all, but sheesh, I don’t think the OP’s intention was to be rude or offensive at all.

      Sometimes the anonymity of the internet can make people so horrible. AAM has said that she has some of the best commenters on the internet and while I love reading her blog and often enjoy the comments, at times I’m completely turned off by your collective narrow-mindedness.

  28. BlueGal*

    OP, depending on how familiar you are with this co-worker, a simple ‘Is everything ok’ might be order. I find that a lot of people just want someone to listen. Some of my co-workers have health and family issues and you can immediately see a shift in their moods and job preformance when something is wrong. You don’t have to be their confidant, but knowing that they might have some issues can make you understand them better.

    Also, I can feel your pain when it comes to the computer issue. I’m in my late 20’s and among the youngest in my office. Somehow, I’ve become the unofficial IT, technical support, computer support jack of all trades, despite the fact that we have a dedicated IT office. It can be frustrating at times helping people understand things I learned when I 8. But I have to remember that I’ve be using a computer for what seems like forever and I’m good at it. I don’t mind helping people out. Helping people find documents they accidently put in a new folder they mistaking created isn’t all that bad. (Not to mention that I always have trouble with the fax machine and copier, they suck!)

    But I had to chuckle at the ‘elderly-10 years from retirement’ comment.

  29. UrsulaMinor*

    50+ was about the time that technology started to drive my parents around the bend. (Its also the same age when their frustration tolerance dropped through the floor.)

    So my advice is to deal with it the way I do all technology related frustrations in someone older than you. Let them rage at the machine a bit, because it will make them feel better. Then ask what’s up. When/if they tell you their problem, hum sympathetically, explain that you or your friend, or your other co-worker had the same problem once. Then tell them how you/they fixed it. Depending on your relationship with the co worker, you can then tell them about this great website you found that answer’s people’s tech support questions, or direct them towards the built in help (Which I find is actually very helpful for these situations). I find this strategy particularly helpful, especially when the perception exists that one person is dealing with a problem flawlessly while the other struggles.

    Also, don’t discount the value of built in tutorials. Both windows and Mac tend to have really useful ‘getting started’ tutorials that explain the difference between the new and previous versions.

  30. Joey*

    Why are you so quick to blame her age?

    Here’s my advice-approach her and give her facts, not judgements of what you’re talking about and see what she says. It’s really hard to give you more than that without more details. We need to know specifically what shes doing that makes her moody and hard to work with. And forgetful as in she can’t remember how to get home or can’t remember where she left her blue pen?

  31. Cruella*

    Sounds like the “old dog/new tricks” has her frustrated. Some people just don’t deal well with change.

    Not everyone can make the switch from a system they are familiar and proficient, to a new one, no matter how similar.

    The stress of the situation may be the cause of her forgetfulness.

    Please be patient.

  32. Diana*

    Wow. Everyone is jumping down this OP’s throat! I think the “OP who can’t respect an online degree” has put everyone in a mood.

    Minus the age issue, I think AAM’s normal advice applies here. How does the co-worker affect your work? If you have something you can’t get done without the coworker then you address the issue from that standpoint. If you address the problem with the coworker and nothing changes, then you take it to your manager but only from the basis of how it is affecting your work. “Jane isn’t giving me X on time and I can’t complete Y without some lead time which will affect the deadline.”

    You should definitely go through AAM’s advice about your coworkers section. Fascinating stuff and very helpful.

    But don’t bring up your coworker’s age, only her performance, and only if it affects your own work. Otherwise, it’s not your business. It might even be something the manager is already dealing with.

  33. Natalie*

    A couple of thoughts:

    Some people are very habitual and find change off-putting, regardless of how old they are. I just moved to a different office with a different computer and a huge monitor, and it took me weeks to feel really comfortable here.

    On the issue of age, the OP didn’t say what they thought retirement age was, so we really have no idea how old this co-worker is. Most of the people under 30 I know, self included, don’t expect to retire by 65. :(

  34. Anonymous*

    This is a case where the OP has to pay it forward against the day when OP needs help dealing with stuff.

  35. Anonymous*

    I feel really bad for older folks who weren’t raised around technology and think it must be very frustrating to have to constantly adapt to technological advances. As someone fortunate enough to grow up doing everything on a computer, new programs, systems, and developments come very easily to the majority of us younger folks in the workforce. However, while I take pity, I realize it is frustrating on both ends! My husband is constantly e-mailing, scanning, editing, etc. etc. his older coworker’s work; he’ll get phone calls at home at 7 pm from the guy asking for help on how to do things on his computer (for both work and personal things!). I guess it is frustrating to be older and not as adaptive/intuitive with today’s technology, and it is equally as frustrating to constantly have to assist those who struggle with technology in addition to your actual job. And you don’t have to be “old” to have technological struggles, my former boss was in her mid-30s and I was constantly having to assist her with EVERYTHING computer-wise. So if I were you, I’d just mind my own business!!

  36. Sean*

    To start with: Fellow readers, don’t off the bat think the woman is 50. Honestly, people retire at various ages. Perhaps she told the OP that she’s retiring in ten years, or perhaps this company is different.

    As for the OP: There’s two possibilities you can do here.

    1. Just ignore and let her figure it out.
    or preferably
    2. Help the woman in learning the system, or even better if you don’t feel comfortable, be a good person and perhaps talk to management. Explain that _____ is having difficulty with the new operating system and perhaps someone could train her in how to use it.

    Remember, some people aren’t the types to ask for help, they may accept it when given, but some are too shy or too proud to want to ask.

    1. Liz in a library*

      I know it’s been said before, but my thought was agreed that just being 10 years out from retirement does not necessarily mean that she’s in her 50s. My parents are in their mid-60s and at LEAST 10 years out from retirement. Probably 15. My grandmother worked part-time into her 80s.

  37. Anonymous*

    There’s nothing complicated to suggest other than empathy and accommodation. Some day you, too, will be elderly.

    And, as others have said, if the worker is “about 10 years away from retirement age,” that makes her about 50 years old, which is hardly “elderly.”

  38. Ask a Manager* Post author

    Pretty much everything I wanted to say in response to this letter has already been said by others, but here are the points that most jumped out at me:

    I can’t tell if the coworkers is in her 50s or not, but as many others have noted, “10 years away from retirement” implies that. At best, the OP should be more careful to be precise in her language (because 50s, and even 60s, are not “elderly”). And at worse, if the OP really thinks of someone in this age group as elderly, she should rethink that — as others have already covered here.

    I also agree with others that the coworker’s behavior may have nothing to do with age; it’s hard to tell without more details. It may just be who she is, or it may be caused by something else entirely. Or, sure, maybe it’s about age. But attributing it to age without more reason to do that can be a pretty harmful thing; this particular stereotype about older workers is directly responsible for people not getting hired when they otherwise would be. So OP, you really don’t want to be cavalier about tossing that around when you’re not clearly demonstrating a correlation.

    In any case, as for the problem itself: Is it your problem? It doesn’t sound like she’s your boss, and you didn’t mention that it’s getting in the way of your own work. It sounds like it’s more of an irritant to you. I’d say to focus on your own work, be helpful to her to the extent that you’re able/willing to, and talk to your boss if this is causing problems in your own work. (But focus on the specific impacts, not on anything age-related.)

    1. Malissa*

      Thank you for your comments.
      I’ve dealt closely with age-related dementia, my Mother-in-Law was recently placed in a nursing home on a dementia diagnosis. So I will own that this maybe a case of hearing hoof beats and thinking zebra’s instead of horses.
      It’s my problem because I’m 10 feet from the coworker and I’m the who helps her when she has trouble. I also have a front row view when she struggles.
      I know that when/if I take this to the boss the concern will be about the work.

  39. Jackie*

    Approach it that same as if the person was in their 20s, 30s, and 40s. Leave age out of it. Never assume anything, you know the old saying? Assuming makes an ass out of you and me.

  40. Malissa*

    Hey 70+ responses to my question and most of them helpful! Thank you Alison for putting this question out there. First to address the issue of using the word elderly–I really have no idea how the of coworker’s age, but elderly was the best thing I could think of to describe her, it may not be the ideal word. She’s worked at this place for 20 years–which puts her 10 years away from full retirement.
    My relationship to her is a close one, literally. She sits 10 feet in front of me. While I am not a her manager, I am considered the team leader for the office. As for replacing her computer, office computers get replaced every 5 years, regardless. And her old machine was in the process of dying.
    I’ve worked with her for the last 6 years. She’s mostly an open book. So there’s no stressors in her personal life right now. Actually that’s better than it’s been in years. It’s just been in the last six-months that she’s just had spells of 2-3 days every few weeks where she just seems to struggle more than normal with everyday tasks. The computer replacement just happened to be during one of those spells. The actual IT guy who set up her computer sat with her for 4 hours that morning helping her navigate through all the differences. So training was provided. As IT does not reside in our building, I do a lot of assessment and simple tasks for the office.
    Just two years ago when we were going through a major software shift in the office she was a rock star during the process. Which is part of what makes me worry about her now.
    As for how this all affects me, when she’s having her spells I have to get up and go over to her computer 10-12 times a day to show her things I know she knows. Any other day I just have to give her the first step and she’s usually good to go.
    This problem isn’t so prevalent that the boss has noticed yet. I know if it gets worse I’ll be the one who has to take the issue to him. I don’t think the problem is that bad yet. I’m just hoping for suggestions on how to help her, which I’ve gotten, and maybe advice on when this should be elevated to the boss.

    1. fposte*

      I think this is a really helpful filling in of the picture. It sounds to me like you’ve historically gotten along with her quite well–is that true? And can you give an idea of how humane the management, specifically your boss, tends to be? I know in my office it would be simple for somebody to come to me and say “I’m worried about Gabrielle–she’s struggling in a way that I’ve never seen her do before.” If your boss would treat that sympathetically, I think that’s a move worth considering. I think it’s also kosher for you to speak to her directly, presuming you get along, but I’d be more inclined to suggest that if you were ready with some helpful suggestions (EAP numbers, maybe?).

      Keep Jackie’s excellent point above in mind, too–this isn’t about age, this is about a performance change that may indicate a problem. And also keep in mind that open books often keep a lot of pages closed up, so it’s probably best to avoid writing off the private life as a factor here.

      1. Malissa*

        I love the coworker dearly! The Boss, is really shaky in the sympathetic scale.I also know when I bring the problem to him, he’ll want me to have a solution, or at least suggestions. I’m hoping to not to have that conversation for a couple of years.

        1. Elizabeth*

          Do you have a close enough relationship with your coworker that you could gently bring this up with her? I’d only do it once, and in a way that shows that you care about her. I might say something like, “Gabrielle, I’ve noticed that over the past six months or so you’ve sometimes had a few days in a row where work tasks seem more difficult for you than they used to and you have trouble remembering how to do things with the computer – and then a day or two later you go back to being able to do those things readily. I remember how awesome you were when we got that new software two years ago, so this seems unusual to me. Have you had an appointment with your doctor lately? Sometimes there are medical issues that can affect people’s memory. I don’t want to embarrass you by saying this, but I’ve been a bit worried about you.” I wouldn’t necessarily mention your mom’s dementia since that could seem kind of scary… besides, there are other possible medical issues that could affect memory, such as sleep issues (mentioned above) or, also scarily, brain tumors.

          After that, I would drop it unless things got bad enough that they impacted my ability to do my work – and then I’d focus just on those aspects of the problem when talking with her or our boss.

      2. mb*

        Has she taken her vacation time lately? Or is she a workaholic who thinks she ‘can’t leave’?

        If not, maybe she needs a long enough break to relax. She may just be so overloaded that she isn’t functioning well.

        1. Malissa*

          Not a work-a-holic, that kind of behavior is strongly discouraged in this office. Which is a very good thing.

          1. fposte*

            Agreed. But there’s still all kinds of stuff that could lead to this, and a lot of it is reversible. Good for you for realizing that your own experience can color this kind of situation, but it’s also probably what made you sensitive in the first place.

            Given what you’ve said about your history with her and the boss’s deficits, I think I would be inclined to talk to her. You’ve got enough positive history that this isn’t bitching about her work, it’s that the recent change makes you concerned for her. If you ever eat together or grab coffee or something, that might be a good time, and it could just be phrased as a question. “G., it seems to me that work is causing you more problems that it usually does. Are you feeling that yourself? If you are, have you thought about talking to somebody medical? We value you a lot around here, and you deserve to be cared for if you’re hitting a bump in the road.”

    2. Ry*

      Malissa, thank you for filling in the details of your question. From reading your original letter, I honestly thought your attitude was pretty awful, and I felt bad for your coworker. (No offense intended, I’m sorry to have thought this!) Age seems to have nothing to do with this equation, so I thought you were making yourself look ageist by framing your concern as a question about her age.

      Now that you’ve sketched in more of the story, I’m with you – I’d be concerned, too. We all know anecdotes do not equal data, no matter how many there are. That said, however, I work with a person who did not know she had a brain tumor until her coworkers brought her work troubles to her attention – she became unable to do routine tasks, forgot what she was doing in the middle of doing it, seemed very spaced-out on some days, and yet seemed completely herself on other days.

      Our employer took a punitive tack with her initially – writing her up, watching her for mistakes, auditing her, not choosing her for overtime, etc. But she was friends with some coworkers, who convinced her to see a neurologist. She had a great outcome – her coworkers’ concern got her to the doctor quickly enough that in this case, the tumor was able to be completely removed and she’s cured.

      I’m certainly not able to diagnose your coworker with a brain tumor, nor dementia, nor anything else! But you’ve turned my opinion around, and I hope you will be able to gently, non-judgmentally express your concern directly to your coworker. If you say something, she may or may not choose to follow up with her doctor, and that’s her decision. If you say nothing (and nobody else does either), she may not become aware that there is an issue.

      Good luck!

    3. Anonymous*

      (I like you far more in this than your initial question, and I hope most people read down to get to this point.)

      I highly recommend sitting down and writing out the common tasks with her. It might make the most sense to have her write them down in the order that makes the most sense to her. If she can refer back to that on days where she is having trouble that would be extremely beneficial to her (and you).

      This would actually benefit the entire office. If she can write down the how to do X task information and create a process manual for the office (and/or job) that is always helpful. This can be something she refers to when she’s having trouble. But having those few things in a three ring binder she can pull out and flip to how to create an e-mail merge would be great. If you have to hire new people at your office to do similar work it is always beneficial to have how to’s for them as well.

      Since you say she has been an open book in the past it might be worth it to just ask her.

      Good luck!

      (And create procedures! They’ll be VERY helpful.)

  41. Lils*

    I sympathize with you–I work in a field where it’s essential to keep up with changes in technology, but one that is also filled with older workers who were hired before constant change became the norm. Sorry to say, but I do agree that older workers are *more likely* to suffer from technophobia–certainly not all, and younger workers don’t always adhere to their stereotype either. It’s our job as tech-savvy folks to try to make sure that all of our colleagues and employees, regardless of age, are able to continue to contribute–getting them training, being a good coach, and helping out as needed. I found a neat little tutorial that talks about how to help a newbie (I was one once too, long ago) with computers: http://polaris.gseis.ucla.edu/pagre/how-to-help.html Best quote: “If it’s not obvious to them, it’s not obvious.”

    1. Jamie*

      This link is excellent. Thanks for posting this – the timing is really perfect. I needed to read this today.

  42. Eva*

    AAM, I really like the ‘ask the readers’ idea, and I look forward to the next ones! However, I think maybe the fun will be maximized if you select questions where more specifics are given than was the case here? I’m not at all what Jack Welch calls a ‘maybe person’ (“Can you say yes or no? Or are you one of those people that always wants a little more data? A ‘maybe’ person. … I hate those people!”), far from it, but I thought the ‘correct’ answer here was to ask the OP for more information, which is why I didn’t bother to post. I would enjoy providing my own take on a clearer predicament before reading yours though!

    1. Malissa*

      Sorry about that. I’m a numbers person by nature. When I wrote this it made perfect sense in my head. Reading it back I can see the confusion.

  43. Mario*

    Unfortunately it seems that the majority of the commenters were more interested in a witch hunt than on addressing the questions. It was vague, right, but I saw absolutely no intention in the post to offend or degrade the person. The way I see it, the OP was asking about how to help someone in that situation, and how to deal with it. Apparently a lot of the older people took it as a personal offense and started the attack. This comment section is usually fantastic and very informative, but I think things got out of hand this time, unfortunately.

    I have a rule when a message seems to offend me: I write a response to get it out of my system but I don’t send it. I re-read the original message and my response after a while. In the majority of the cases I would be overreacting if I sent my message. This approach would have been useful here.

    1. Anonymous*

      Actually, quite a few of us are younger than 40 (some 30s and some 20s…any teens in here?).

      Considering that quite a few Americans retire around the time they are eligible for either Social Security, Medicare, or both, those people are in their early, perhaps mid-, 60s. With that in mind, the OP first called the coworker “elderly” and towards the end of the posting, the OP said the coworker is 10 years away from retirement age; that to everyone else means in the person’s early to mid-50s. To me, the word “elderly” has a connotation of an old peron, perhaps fragile and frail. Therefore, someone 10 years before the typical retirement age is not elderly.

      Furthermore, when someone starts playing the “age game,” it is entering dangerous territory, which is known as “age discrimination.” That is why many older folks have difficulty obtaining jobs, especially in this horrible economy. So when you have a coworker blaming another’s mood, confusion, and/or frustration on age, then, that coworker might very well be entering illegal and dangerous arenas in the workplace.

      It’s best to shut down and change the word choices, and then have the OP focus on the true problem. Now we’ll know more if and when the OP writes in, and from what I have skimmed over, that person has not. In my opinion, this particular comment board has not overreacted and have not gone on a witch hunt. A witch hunt is mainly on something that isn’t there or far-reaching, but the OP’s words are quite clear and right there.

      1. Mario*

        I agree with your point. The OP was reprimanded from the get-go. By one, two, three..ten…fifty…too many people.

        In normal circumstances someone would have said “Look, you should not be doing X and Y. That apart..” and then answer the question. This time around it seems that people were not even bothering with the question at all.

        I didn’t see any bad intention on the OP original message. It seems that this issue touched very sensitive spots for a lot of people, that answered based on personal prejudice.

        1. Suzanne*

          I don’t think we middle-agers are overreacting or witch hunting. Anyone who has looked for work after age 50 knows that age discrimination is real and insidious. The OP categorizing someone 10 years from retirement as “elderly” tells me that the problem is more entrenched in the workplace than I imagined. The fact that the coworker’s age was even mentioned says volumes and I doubt the OP meant any harm, but if her co-worker had been 30, age would not have been considered. This is scary to those of us who were not able to amass a fortune and know we may have to work far past the normal retirement age all the while living in fear that if we don’t embrace the newest technology upgrade, or can’t grasp some new system immediately, we will instantly be considered on a fast track to dementia and be pushed out the door.

  44. Anonymous*

    Try working with a negative,grumpy,bitter, and chain smoking old woman who is 68! I’m constantly helping her on data entry on the computer. She is constantly calling out due to health issues.
    At first I felt sorry for her but this woman has held this position for 8 years. I’ve only been performing the job for 6 months and I run circles around her. Our job is very physical. Half the time she’s out of breath due to her ignorance from smoking. Oh and she stinks from the cigarettes too. Gross! Where are non- smokers rights in the work place. Especially when I have to be in a work space that is 9×5 and enclosed.
    You would think she would retire or they would push her out the door but it’s government employment. It’s hard to get rid of any employee that works for the government. Thanks for wasting our tax dollars! She’s non productive and a hazard on the job!

  45. Anonymous*

    sounds like poor management. workers change as they age and learn and progress. a manager will continually rearrange the workers to work in their areas of strength, allowing the entire office to flow smoothly. this is not an age thing. anymore than a new mother being distracted worrying about being a “new mom”… thing.

  46. Anonymous*

    I am 65 and all my co-workers are in their 20’s and 30’s — really terrific, bright team. They are all really very helpful when I need tech help and I have learned so much from them. Working does keep me young and on my toes — that’s for sure! I hope to retire next year but I am not sure how I will make it in on Social Security (my husband lost his job in his mid 50’s) and our modest savings. I also take care of my 92 year old blind mom. I feel lucky to have a nice job with helpful co-workers, whom, I think respect me and feel I have something to offer even though I am not the office computer wiz.

  47. Anonymous*

    How to handle an older co-worker who is getting very possesive about the other co-worker(lady) who is his daughter’s age, and trying to create enimity between her close friends in the same team,
    and interfering in her personal matters(family)

  48. Jme*

    I’m dealing with an older lady at work who is also rude, defensive & cranky. She’s almost 60. I do not care to state what age class she may or may not fall into. Honestly my issue with her is that she’s very forgetful & very defensive & rude when I ask about a file. I believe this is bc she can’t recall any details ( I’ve actually confirmed this fact ). For the most part she is nice, except when I’m talking to he about work-related issues. She can’t remember if I ask if she made a phone call five to ten minutes after the call (this happened today). She either lies or just blurts out any answer when I ask something about work This creates a lot of wasted time & frustration searching for answers to the lies. I’m at my limit today. I did realize that maybe she does have some memory problems & maybe she is defensive because she can’t remember much. My thoughts are: if she is creating a lot of problems for the company but is a nice person, well unless its about work, then you know I think it’s ok to be frustrated. I must remain professional of course, but I can completly relate to the posters dilemma. Yep we are all going to be old one day and we all need to give the care, respect & compassion we want to be given, but it’s frustrating. If this lady were younger and her job performance were that poor would you have received the same responses? Is it more important that you be nice to the older moody cranky & rude lady than it is to keep the best interest of the company & other workers? I know God is judge & he puts us in these situations for his purpose so I think I need to pray that he change ME at this point bc she’s always this way. I am not always this way. There is something in my behavior that God is trying to change in Me. I’ll take it to him so he can continue his good work in me until the end. Jeremiah 29:11.

  49. ageistmuch*

    It’s extremely ageist to assume that simply because a co-worker is moody or having difficulty adjusting to a new operating system that she is senile. WTF?? Replace that with I’m sitting next to a younger woman that seems moody so she must be PMSing, and you can practically cut the ism with a knife. It just so happens that senility and age don’t always go together, and most people in the later years, the vast majority in fact are in full command of their faculties. I know this, because I’ve done the research. There could be any number of reasons why this woman is moody, and none may have anything to do with her age. There are any number of illnesses or anxiety states or just personal situations that could be impacting this woman’s behavior. It’s sad that you would jump to such a conclusion, but therein lies the reason why ageism in our society and therefore hiring is so tragically rampant.

  50. Rae Reeves*

    I fear the young individual complaining about the “elderly” co-worker may have other issues. I certainly am at retirement age as a counselor. Enjoy it and am called excellent. Several women, PRNs also resent me because I am consider old-fashioned, exceedingly hardworking and get the job done without fuss. I employ skills of respect and kindness. However my college degree is less than theirs and perhaps this irritates them. Perhaps some arrogance ad over-blown egos? I am not a “boss” just the lead when I work ad they really reset them. I would love the opportunity to participate in a more kind office atmosphere, but they do not. I keep to myself but they frequently are rude ad somewhat prejudice. No matter the kindness or respect I offer, they are still angry at the little extra work I have been given. They do not want to do it, but they are belligerent that I was placed I that tiny role and complain bitterly about it. The young like the young for co-workers, I believe, and
    this arrogance and prejudice turns into inflated or invented complaints. My bosses like me but not my co-works. I am going to begin to docurment these actions but still hard to prove. Otherwise, I do not know how to handle this situation. Thanks for listening, Rae.

  51. Rae Reeves*

    I just wanted to add, that indeed I am retirement age but have to work to support myself, and I enjoy it. I hope my health holds out for many more years. It is fortunate that I love my work. I find it very sad how younger people want to shove older individuals out of the way as if inconvenient old furniture. Of course, we all know how bad the economy is and how many young people have heavy college debts and need work. Unfortunately, this has further created an atmosphere of “dog eat dog”. I will also say. most are proficient in technology, having been born with such attached to their finger-tips as if it were an extra digit. Hhowever, their proficiency in English, cursive writing and respect and kindness to all races is sadly lacking. Rae

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