“My elderly mother wants constant attention!”
“Dad follows me everywhere and I can’t get a moment alone to myself.”
“Since my husband’s stroke, I’m his only source of care and companionship. It’s really wearing on me, but he refuses all other caregivers.”
Complaints like these are common among family caregivers. One of the most frequent questions I hear is how to deal with needy elderly parents/spouses. Attention-seeking behavior can be especially challenging for working caregivers and sandwich generation caregivers who are already spread thin. Even the most mundane and stress-free tasks can become difficult when your loved one is following you around the house or calling incessantly to inquire when you’ll be home.
When a senior is so clingy that it’s interfering with your caregiving tasks, day-to-day responsibilities in your own life, and critical me-time, it must be addressed before caregiver burnout sets in. The best way to approach this dilemma is to determine the underlying cause(s) of their clingy behavior. There are a few common reasons why older adults tend to demand constant assistance, attention or companionship, and there are different strategies for addressing each. Peruse the following five dynamics to see which one best describes your predicament and how to remedy it.
5 Types of Needy Elderly Care Recipients
The PuppyThis individual is perfectly safe and has no behavioral disorder which causes them to become overly anxious when left alone or with a friend, another family member, or a paid caregiver. However, they strongly prefer that you be around all the time. If you’re dealing with a senior like this, the best solution is, with all due respect, “training.”
Most caregivers have probably tried to have a reasonable conversation with loved ones who have this issue, but an additional step is usually necessary to successfully modify their behavior. First, explain why you can’t be with them every minute of every day, then respectfully negotiate and offer rewards for desired behavior. For example, when you need some alone time to handle laundry, run errands or decompress, offer incentives like a treat or designated one-on-one time together after they allow you to complete the task on your own and with minimal grief. It sounds simple, but as with a puppy, positive reinforcement can go a long way. It is helpful to provide a few choices and let your loved one pick from different alternatives that you’re okay with.
Keeping a senior occupied can be helpful as well. Whether it is watching a TV show, chatting on the phone with a friend, attending adult day care, working in the garden, or going on an outing with another caregiver, ensuring your loved one is busy at the same time you are can help keep their attention focused on something other than your absence. It is impossible for one person to be a 24/7 caregiver, entertainer, friend, nurse, cook and maid. Sometimes, you will just need to go and take time to yourself. Try to stop feeling guilty about this. If your loved one protests, just know that they’re safe and will get over this “slight” eventually.
The WorrywartThis person is generally safe on their own but tends to panic when they are left alone (or with another caregiver). Sometimes this is due to behavioral issues which may or may not be related to their medical conditions. If your loved one is naturally a nervous person, the situation is more complicated, especially if they suffer from an anxiety disorder. In this case, it may be best to seek guidance from a mental health professional who can offer techniques like therapy and/or medication to help alleviate an elder’s anxiety.
Your care recipient’s need to have you close is very real to them and an urgent matter. No amount of reasoning will change the fear that their separation anxiety causes. It is important to find ways to help them feel safe when you can’t be around, but don’t expect them to be able to deal with the situation entirely on their own.
Appropriate strategies will depend on the severity of their attachment to you, but it’s best to draw on familiarity to find a back-up source of comfort that will keep their nervousness in check. For example, jumping into respite options like adult day care will likely cause your loved one to become frantic or even experience a panic attack. The combination of your absence, strangers and new surroundings could be very overwhelming. It’s best to slowly incorporate new caregivers and environments into their routine one at a time before attempting to step away even briefly.
The Veteran of AgingThis type of clingy senior has actually had a bad experience in the past when the desired caregiver wasn’t around. Their issues with separation stem from a deep fear that this distressing event will happen again. Such an attachment often develops after a senior experiences a scare, such as a fall, a stroke or a heart attack, while alone. Unlike the worrywart type, who is plagued by unfounded anxieties, the veteran’s worst “what-if” scenario has already occurred.
Your loved one has come to associate you with safety and security and feels that they are vulnerable when you’re not around. While this reasoning isn’t totally sound, it is certainly understandable and you must acknowledge their fear of a repeat event. If you can help them to understand that they are clinging to you because of a past experience, it may be possible to put safety nets in place that provide support and reassurance in your stead. For example, purchasing a wearable emergency alert system, completing a home safety assessment and making modifications, or arranging check-in phone calls at agreed upon intervals might make them feel more confident and less alone while you’re away.
The AmnesiacPerhaps the saddest situation is a loved one who is oblivious to the fact that they are constantly demanding your presence. This is often the result of dementia and other neurological disorders that inhibit a senior’s ability to recognize that their behavior and expectations are unreasonable. Memory issues can also cause a senior to repeatedly seek attention and reassurance because they cannot remember that their caregiver has already met these needs.
Shadowing is another behavioral symptom of dementia that is commonly confused with intentional clinginess. It occurs when someone with dementia closely follows their caregiver around the house or works to keep them in sight at all times. Caregivers usually find this behavior oppressive and consider it an invasion of their personal space, but there is little that can be done to minimize it.
As a dementia caregiver, your best bet is to grit your teeth and do what you need to do, without taking anything your loved one says or does too personally. When Alzheimer’s disease or another form of dementia is present, it is helpful to remember that your loved one’s brain is broken, and they cannot be reasoned with. Redirection is a useful tool in dementia care that may allow some caregivers slip away for a while. It’s best not to make a big deal out of temporary absences, since they can be upsetting for dementia patients. Those in the later stages will likely forget about their caregiver’s absence before long. Just ensure that your loved one is safe and supervised when you are not present. Because dementia presents differently in each person and the symptoms usually fluctuate from day to day, you’ll probably have to work on addressing additional issues like emotional outbursts or incessant phone calls as they arise.
The ManipulatorThis individual understands that they are not at risk on their own. However, they are always keenly aware of when you plan to head out on your own and coincidentally become panicked or “ill” just before you’re supposed to leave. Their aim is to keep you close at hand and, for many caregivers, this exploitive agenda works.
A manipulative family member is the toughest kind of clingy senior to handle. In this case, your loved one knows exactly how to push your buttons and does so for his or her own gain. This may be due to a long-standing personality disorder, or it could be the result of a caregiver enabling a senior’s reliance on others.
A word of caution: try not to be too quick to conclude that this is the explanation for your situation. Make sure that you have considered all other possible reasons first. For example, certain dementia behaviors can seem manipulative when they are actually out of a senior’s control. So many caregivers become frustrated and assume that their loved ones are being cunning when, in fact, their behavior is representative of an entirely different problem.
If you are convinced that you are being manipulated, then it is up to you to decide that you’re not going to fall into the trap anymore. You’re unlikely to change your care recipient’s behavior, so your only option is to change how you allow yourself to react. You must set firm boundaries and require that the senior respect them or else there will be consequences. If an elder is particularly devious and self-absorbed, learning to detach with love will enable you set and maintain these boundaries without feeling guilty.