Handling Controlling Elderly Parents
The responsibility of providing care for an aging or ill loved one is a monumental challenge in its own right. But when a care recipient is domineering about how and when every single task is done, it’s bound to exasperate those who are in charge of their daily care.
Maybe your controlling elderly mother demands that you keep her company around the clock, but she certainly won’t watch any of the television shows you enjoy. Your overbearing father might refuse to let you help him bathe, but there’s also no way he’ll ever let a professional bath aide set foot in the house. Perhaps your spouse complains constantly about the food you carefully prepare each day and the clothing you pick out for them every morning. You do all of these things out of love only to be met with disdain.
While your loved one’s negative attitude is certainly frustrating, it’s important to understand that an elder’s real and perceived levels of independence and control over their life are forever changed when they begin needing a caregiver’s help. Achieving a better understanding of what this overbearing behavior stems from could help you cope with their control issues and influence how you respond to their demands.
The Dynamics of the Caregiving Relationship
Sometimes the difficult dynamics between a caregiver and a care recipient have been deeply ingrained for many years. If your elderly parent or spouse has always been the dominating personality in your relationship, it is likely that their behavior will only worsen as they get older and their health declines.
With some demanding elderly parents, an overly critical, authoritarian parenting style is handed down from generation to generation. The dynamic of a child trying to please a parent who can never be satisfied is so entrenched in the relationship that family therapy could be the only option for improvement. However, it is unlikely that family members would agree to come together for counseling this late in the game. With spouses, the dynamic may have developed over a shorter period of time, but it may still be difficult to set new boundaries and achieve a more balanced power structure. Couples counseling is an option that may yield results, but only if both parties are able and willing to participate.
Although it is not an excuse, analyzing your elder’s behavior in the context of family dynamics may provide some clues to the origins of their need for control. If this behavior is relatively new and has not been a pattern in your relationship, then it may be a fear-driven response.
As people age, they tend to feel a loss of control over many things, namely their independence. Our bodies weaken, often affecting our physical abilities and taking a toll on our mental health. Chronic pain may be a new reality. Some seniors lose the ability to walk without the assistance of another person or a mobility aid. Incontinence may now be an embarrassing issue. Feeling ill and unlike oneself is draining for a person at any age, but it is especially frustrating when there is little that can be done to remedy the situation. Realizing their lives are forever changed, many seniors lash out at the people around them.
As a less-than-healthy coping mechanism, our elders may begin exercising the only control they have left: micromanaging everything and everyone in their immediate environment. They often target the one person they believe (or hope) won’t leave them: you, their caregiver. Understanding their specific feelings of loss and fears for the future will help you cope with this behavior and devise ways to empower and reassure them.
Balancing Power and a Senior's Safety
If your loved one’s urge to control you and their environment seems to be an outlet for their frustration and fear, consider ways that you can help them regain some power. Think about how you would act if you had people swoop in and begin making decisions for you. Even if they had the best intentions, you would probably wind up feeling like a spectator instead of a participant in your own life.
Reflect on your behavior and determine if you are taking more control than you need to. Many caregivers make the mistake of taking over, even if it isn’t necessary, because it is the most efficient option. If this is the case, you may want to step back a bit. It can be frustrating waiting for Mom to pick out her own clothes each morning or for Dad to decide what he would like to eat for dinner, but it is important to allow them to retain control over whatever their capabilities allow. By balancing a loved one’s safety with their desire to be involved in decisions about their own life, you may establish a far more peaceful caregiving relationship.
Setting Boundaries With Manipulative Parents
Most family caregivers are at a loss how to deal with irrational elderly parents. Regardless of the underlying cause for a loved one’s demanding nature, setting boundaries is essential. Determine how much negativity is excusable because of the circumstances versus when this behavior becomes unhealthy manipulation for everyone involved. Sticking to the boundaries you set is hard, but consistency is important.
Deciding what you will and will not tolerate will help you maintain your mental and physical well-being and compel your loved one to cooperate with their care plan and the people who see it through. Learning to “detach with love” will enable you to remain dedicated to your rules. One-on-one counseling can also allow caregivers to gain insight into a loved one’s behaviors and learn techniques for coping.
Unfortunately, dementia can complicate boundary setting. Those in the moderate and severe stages of the disease often have trouble regulating their moods and behaviors and remembering that certain lines have been drawn, let alone what those lines are. Be realistic about your expectations of your loved one and your own personal limits.
Controlling Behavior Can Escalate Into Caregiver Abuse
Be aware that a senior’s controlling behavior can cross over into emotional abuse of their caregiver. In the worst cases, the elder is fully aware of the hurt their actions cause and is still unremorseful. Mental illness and personality disorders are often to blame for this prolonged disrespect and manipulation. It is important for family caregivers to understand that providing hands-on care for an abusive elder is not a sustainable option. Even for dementia patients who are not fully in control of their behavior, mistreatment is still unacceptable for a caregiver to endure over the long term. Eventually, your mental and physical health will deteriorate, leaving you burned out and incapable of providing quality care.
Limit Your Involvement in Caring for Difficult Elderly Parents
If exercises in understanding and setting boundaries are unsuccessful, it may be time to limit your involvement in providing care. Remaining in a toxic environment may result in compassion fatigue, depression, and even retaliatory abuse. Fortunately, there are options available that can give you a break from the strains of caregiving and ensure your loved one gets the assistance they need.
Hiring professional in-home caregivers, taking your loved one to adult day care, or placing them in a senior living facility is the best way for caregivers to distance themselves from destructive behavior. Each of these long-term care options is customizable to meet a senior’s needs and allow for as much or as little involvement as a caregiver wants.
Regardless of how controlling your loved one is, it is crucial for you to make yourself a priority, too. If you are reaching your boiling point, it is time to make a change. Seek out regular respite and do whatever is necessary to look after your own physical and mental health.
Bruce Webb is a Senior Real Estate Specialist (SRES) and has an extensive network of senior-related referrals.
- Becky, Home Buyer
- Ted, Home Seller and Buyer
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