How to Handle an Elder's Controlling Behavior

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Many caregivers have times they want to cut and run. They feel they've given their all to their elders, and then their elders want more. The parent wants the adult children to be there all the time. They won't accept hired help. If the caregiver wants to go out with a spouse or friends, the parent whines about being left alone or wants to go along. The parent complains about the carefully prepared food, the specially chosen clothes, anything at all.

Family Dynamics Plays a Key Role

Sometimes the dynamics between caregiver and care-receiving parents are just a continuation of the family dynamics from the past -- dynamics that were always there – a child trying to please a parent who can't be pleased. The controlling behavior is abusive and likely handed down from generation to generation. This behavior is so entrenched in the family that it seems only therapy could change anything and family therapy is not likely to happen at this late date.

Sometimes, however, if the caregiver gets brave enough to decide what is just bad temper they can live with and what is abuse and then can set boundaries and stick to them, the situation can be made more bearable. There is something else to consider. If the controlling, abusive behavior is not deeply entrenched in the family, the caregiver may be helped to understand the situation by understanding that much controlling behavior by their elders is fear driven.

A Loss of Independence

As people age, they feel a loss of control over so many things, their bodies not the least of it. They often suffer chronic pain. They sometimes lose the ability to walk. The humiliation on incontinence is thrust upon them. So, they lash out at the one person they know (or hope) won't leave them – you, the caregiver.

Family History May Play a Role in Elder's Behavior

I'm not excusing the elder's difficult behavior, and I'm not saying caregivers should allow themselves to be abused. I am suggesting that a caregiver analyze the behavior of the elder and the family dynamics, maybe even inviting a few other opinions, so they can see where this controlling behavior is coming from. This understanding may influence the way you handle the controlling behavior.

Giving Back Some Power

If it seems to be coming from the elders' frustration of loss, of having everyone else make all of their decisions, you may want to see if there are ways you can hand back some power to the elders without doing harm. Think what you would act like if you had people swoop in and take over your life, even if they had the best of intentions. Then, look at your own behavior and see if you are taking more control than you need to, or doing so because it's "efficient," even if not totally necessary. If this is the case, you may want to relent a bit, and make sure the elder can control whatever his capabilities allow. By doing this, you may find life more peaceful all around this way.

No matter what the cause of the controlling behavior – entrenched abuse or fear stemming from uncontrolled loss – setting boundaries with an elder is necessary. You must decide how much you will take. How much negative behavior is excusable because of the circumstances and when does this become abusive? Sticking to the boundaries you set is hard, but consistency is important (unless you are faced by a medical change). Even when dementia is present, there is often some comprehension within the abusive parent that they have gone as far as they can go without losing the caregiver.

Bringing in Reinforcements

If you are in a no-win situation that stems from abuse from childhood, the only solution may be to have the parent cared for by non-family members in assisted living or a nursing home. That is one way to put some distance between you and the controlling parent, without giving up caregiving.

Caregivers walk a fine line with their elders between being caring and being abused. While for each person, the line will be a little different, family history often plays a large part in where this line is drawn. Third party help, whether from a trusted friend or a paid counselor, may be worth your time in finding this line, if you can't do it alone.

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

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!
It's a balancing act... They don't know they're time-consuming and whittling-away your life, while they have this 'urgency' to live what's left of theirs (while knowing their time is very limited). While trying to help them and make 'their' life happy and comfortable, your life/youth slips away. It's scary all the way around. Combine this with no sibling help or family 'issues', lack of money, working the 'systems', appointments... no wonder caregiver's get ill themselves. We've all read posts here trying to help caregiver's get help... so, we owe it to ourselves to force outside forces to intervene and to get out at least once a week for our own health.
I am 61 years old, a well-expected professional, but an emotional wreck when it comes to caring for my 87 year old mother who is still mostly independent. I am an only child (daughter) and feel this is what I must do, but the intermittent emotional abuse is almost unbearable. It has been going on since I was a child and now, although I am married, have kids and grandkids, I cannot enjoy my almost-retirement. Her demands are excessive at times and I know she knows how to get what she wants from me because I guess I don't know how to say no. What is wrong no with me and how do I fix this? I went for counseling in my thirties and it helped for awhile. I cannot believe I still have this problem. I am so stuck! Any advice?