A Delaware Wave reader in Ocean City writes,
Dear Dr. Hurd,
My mother is 88 years old, lives alone, doesn’t drive, and is in pretty good health. Since she moved here, she has become very manipulative. She exaggerates her hearing and vision problems as an excuse to evade responsibility, and ‘invents’ situations to get what she wants. I’ve spent time setting up activities for her (like membership in the local senior center and reliable transportation), but she refuses expend any effort greater than just calling me.
I’m happy to do things for her, but her feigned ‘helplessness’ is annoyingly transparent and takes the pleasure out of helping her. I do a lot of things to make her life comfortable, but she’s never satisfied. Why can’t she act like an adult, instead of a spoiled child, and take at least a little responsibility for her day-to-day activities?
I respect your honesty. Too often, younger people do themselves and their elders a disservice by pretending that the elderly are incapable of manipulative behavior. Everyone is capable of manipulative behavior. The simple fact is that it often stems from one basic emotion: Fear.
Of course older people become frightened. How would you feel if you could no longer drive, yet were still expected to take care of yourself? For example, you might still be able to cook, but you have no control over when you can go to the grocery store. You have to ask permission for everything!
Though it’s important to be sensitive to your mother’s perspective, it’s even more important to take care of yourself. Aside from the fact that you’re entitled to pursue a happy and healthy life of your own, it’s likewise crucial for her to have a strong loved one who can be there for her. She doesn’t need a guilty, suffering, drained martyr. If you think she has problems now, imagine where she’d be if you were gone, or if you had a debilitating illness. You must take care of yourself—both physically AND mentally.
For starters, don’t let your mother run amok throughout your schedule. It makes sense that she will become focused—even fixated—on routine or mundane matters such as the grocery store, haircuts, etc. Respect her by being honest. Just because she’s old and you feel guilty, don’t be afraid to say ‘no.’ For example, ‘We just went to the store yesterday; we’re not going again today. We’ll get that item next time. Keep a list.’
Increased anxiety is often a part of the aging process, but just because your mother’s anxiety rises doesn’t mean yours has to. You don’t have to allow her various ‘crises’ to become your everyday reality. Match her anxiety with strength.
You said that she ‘invents’ situations to get what she wants, so you must be starting to see through these fabrications. If you think it will be productive, call her on what she’s doing—but if she denies it, it’s not worth fighting over. Simply refuse to give in. The life cycle has a way of going full circle. We start out as children who want our way, regardless of reality or the rightful needs of others. As we age, many of us regress emotionally to that status. To put it quite bluntly, you need to respond to her as you would a child. Give her what she really needs, and what you are able and willing to give her—but don’t give in to more than that.
Manipulative and ‘inventive’ behaviors are a result of her not wanting to ask for something you might be perfectly willing to provide. For example, she might simply want to go out for a ride. It’s hard being in the house all the time. But, instead of asking you directly, she’ll ‘invent’ something such as a burned-out light bulb, or the need to go to the store. To counter this, encourage your mother to be honest and assertive. Tell her to always ask for what she wants. Explain to her (and to yourself!) that there’s a difference between asking politely for something and demanding it as an entitlement. Then treat each type of request accordingly.
Set boundaries with her. You said that you arranged transportation and activities she can handle on her own. This is important for you as well as her. Create some distance so that she’ll have to make a different choice. If she wants to go to the store today, then she’ll have to find another way to get there. Don’t be hostile or defensive—if you do, then you’ll feel guilty and turn back on your word. Remind her she has a choice. ‘Oh, you want to go out? Well, why not call the senior center number I gave you? I’ll bet you’ll have a great time!’ She may resist, but you’ll be giving her back some of the independence she has lost.
Above all, remember that we create the relationships around us. If your mother is acting like a child, you have created it. You’re in the driver’s seat. She cannot act this way without your consent. You can sustain this dysfunction, or you can become more reasonable towards yourself, and empower her in the process. For the rest of her days, that choice will always be yours.