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Advice on Caring For Controlling Loved Ones

At her most controlling times, Christina Moore’s grandmother had members of her large extended family taking her to the grocery store up to three times a week — and often, for just one or two items. She also demanded her daughter take her to the doctor for any ailment that surfaced.

Even when she would take her grandmother along on her own family’s grocery store runs, Moore says she was needy, demanding and even jealous of Moore’s two young children. These trips — and her grandmother’s attitude — pushed Moore to her limits.

Brenda Avadian, MA, founded The Caregivers Voice to serve family caregivers and professionals who work with adults with cognitive impairment or dementia caused by Alzheimer’s, stroke, related illnesses or trauma. Avadian was a caregiver for both parents — her mother had congestive heart failure and her father lived with Alzheimer’s — and both went through periods of being controlling.

Below, Moore and Avadian share the tips they’ve learned from caring for a controlling older adult:

Learn About Your Parent’s Disease or Illness

Controlling parents and loved ones expect things a certain way. But as they lose their sense of control to a disease or illness, their behaviors are likely to intensify. The more you can learn about a parent’s journey through whatever diagnosis he or she has received read this post on the progression of Alzheimer's, the better you can anticipate how this controlling behavior may intensify or be triggered. Knowing what to expect can give you a greater sense of control.

When dealing with a loved one who is especially stubborn, opinionated or has an abrasive/abusive personality, knowing more about his or her condition may help you avoid emotionally charged arguments.

Because Alzheimer's and the aging process are beyond control, a controlling person will only be enraged and frustrated by this situation, and that may manifest itself in conversations. An emphasis on a partnership, so she can still have some power, is significant when navigating these difficult talks.

Communicate with All Family Members

Each family tends to have one primary caregiver who manages the majority of an older adult's caregiving needs. And that one caregiver can quickly risk burning out if he or she won't delegate care tasks to other family members. By doing so, you can better match relatives with appropriate functions. For example, Moore's older sister did not mind taking their grandmother to the store. Moore was thankful to find another way to support her grandmother and still enjoy spending time with her, instead of feeling guilted into an errand that was not a necessity, but a means of manipulation. It was also through communication with one another that the large family network discovered the excessive number of grocery store trips.

Set Boundaries

Good communication lays the foundation for setting boundaries, and as the Moore family learned, is key to scaling back on her grandmother’s shopping demands. When Moore told her grandmother she was no longer able to take her to the store, she didn’t explain her reasons, but kept her message firm and direct. She also reminded her grandmother of local senior services and encouraged her to arrange her own transportation. Moore, who lives the closest to her grandmother, explained that she will pick up toilet paper or any other necessary items whenever her grandmother runs out, but only if it happens between predetermined shopping trips. As for the day of the visit, Moore relies on strict timing she’s set in advance. For example, “Today, I’m staying for one hour.”

Older loved ones who are controlling also tend to be highly opinionated — and quite vocal about those opinions. They may even have polarizing political views. They may say whatever comes to mind, whether or not it’s appropriate in the setting or hurtful. Caregiving is hard, even with a loved one receptive to care. But when the person you're caring for also says careless, divisive things on a regular basis, continually criticizes you or regularly calls out other people for what he or she thinks they're doing wrong, the wear and tear on you as the primary caregiver is amplified. And a controlling loved one will often push you and take as much as he or she can, driving you to the edge.

This is why boundary-setting is so critical when playing the role of a caregiver. Professionals may have the expertise to have developed skin thick enough for whatever is said.

Take a Break

When dealing with a controlling loved one, find short respite breaks in your day — even if it’s just five minutes, Avadian notes. “Sometimes, a few minutes is all it takes to prevent family caregivers from doing something regrettable,” she says. The stress of caring for a controlling loved one can take its toll quickly, especially as you find yourself providing more care. Stay ahead of the burnout curve by finding respite where and when you can, and by planning for long periods of time away from your loved one."

Even the most patient of people providing care for a loved one can be easily frustrated after a sleepless night. And frustration doesn’t often stand alone: it’s usually tied to many other feelings, such as anger and ambivalence. You’ll sometimes feel like nothing you do is good enough. That frustration can lead to unhealthy habits like substance abuse and stress eating. Respite is a necessity, for maintenance of your best health as the caregiver, and for your loved one’s best care — even on days when you truly can’t be at your best.

Over her years of playing the role of primary caregiver for her grandmother, Moore also found that a change of pace — for example, working with an experienced in-home caregiver — was tremendously helpful and even instructive. “A side benefit is that the family caregiver will learn other caregiving tips from the professional caregiver,” she adds.

 Delegate the Most Difficult Tasks

For the family caregiver bearing the brunt of a controlling loved one’s demands — and quite likely, feeling guilty for resenting that role — the risk of burnout is ever present. But it can be prevented by working with a professional caregiver sooner rather than later.

Make a list of what care you can provide. Make a list of the care that other family members contribute. From those two lists, notate the tasks or even times of day that a controlling loved one is most difficult. You could also establish a relationship with a home care provider and start delegating those problematic tasks and frustrating times to a professional caregiver, freeing yourself and other relatives of the control and returning to a relationship that’s enjoyable and fulfilling.

Loneliness is a genuine struggle for many older adults, particularly those who are more opinionated and stubborn. Concerned about the way your controlling loved one has isolated herself, both from friends and family? Find out how social media can foster better social connections.

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