How to Handle an Elder's Controlling Behavior

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The responsibility of providing care for an aging or ill loved one is a 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 Mom demands that you keep her company around the clock, but she certainly won’t watch any of the television shows you enjoy. Dad might refuse to let you help him bathe, but there’s no way he’ll ever let a professional caregiver 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 overwhelmingly negative attitude is certainly frustrating, it’s important to understand that a person’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 where this overbearing behavior stems from could help you cope with their control issues and influence how you respond to their demands.

Relationship Dynamics Play a Key Role

Sometimes the dynamics between caregiver and care recipient have been deeply ingrained for many years. If your 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 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.

Fear and Loss

As people age, they tend to feel a loss of control over many things, namely their independence. Our bodies weaken and affect our physical abilities. Chronic pain may be a new reality. Some 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 regarding the future will help you cope with this behavior and devise ways to empower and reassure them.

Give Back Some Power

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.

Consider your own 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 or for Dad to decide what he would like to eat for dinner, but it is important to permit control over whatever their capabilities allow. By balancing their safety with the desire to be involved in their own decisions, you may establish a far more peaceful caregiving relationship.

Set Boundaries

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 wellbeing and compel your loved one to cooperate with the plan of care and the people who see it through. Detaching with love can also help you remain dedicated to your rules. One-on-one counseling can help caregivers gain insight into a loved one’s behaviors and learn these 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 Be 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 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.

Bring in Reinforcements

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 are 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.

Carol Bradley Bursack

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Over the span of two decades, author, columnist, consultant and speaker Carol Bradley Bursack cared for a neighbor and six elderly family members. Her experiences inspired her to pen, "Minding Our Elders: Caregivers Share Their Personal Stories," a portable support group book for caregivers.

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153 Comments

I just read a fascinating article over the weekend about spiritual practice and taking care of someone that you don't get along with. I've been feeling that my need to be continually available to my abusive mother has deterred me from my spiritual practice. What this article suggests is that taking care of someone who is hard to get along with or has been abusive IS our spiritual practice. That we learn to be patient, kind and understanding even though these people don't treat us well. We get to practice seeing how patient we can be.
Eugenie - you have done very well. I am thinking about cutting off from my narcissistic Borderline Personality Disorder mother.. They don't change, but we do, and I am tired of the sick games. . My kids stay away from her too, on the whole. I haven't allowed my mother in my home for a number of years, as she was too difficult. She is 100 now , still pretty well and still causing problems, being critical and negative - emotionally abusive, and wanting to be the center of attention. I am 75 and want some of my life to be without that influence. Still it is not an easy decision. I have POA with my sis as backup, so my first move should be to drop that. My sis is narcissistic like my mother, so maybe she can handle her.
book - you have made so much progress since the summer (((((((hugs))))). I have been to therapy off and on and find it helpful. So much of it is setting boundaries, and protecting yourself, Therapy can help with raising self esteem too, and learning how to do the above. But you have to go with your own timing, and also find someone who suits you.
Good luck to you both for the new year. May it being positive changes!
I really relate to your dilemna of your 72 year old child. My sister, who was a drug addict, committed suicide a year ago. She was mom's favorite. There were only 2 of us. My dad died over 20 years ago. So like you, I'm stuck taking care of this very negative woman, who won't even cooperate with her caregivers. What I did was get a local agency to come in to help. I have someone to bath her, clean her house, and be there on times when I need to go out of town. I'm going this week to my granddaughter's wedding and will be gone 5 days. The agency will come in every day and care for her. It costs a little money, but I write the checks out of her checkbook. Why don't you check your local Office on Aging and see what kind of support they can give you. It's made all the difference in the world to just have a break from time to time.