How to Handle an Elder’s Controlling Behavior

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.

This article was written by  Carol Bradley Bursack and can be found here.