Dear Dr. Hurd,
My mother is 91, 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, 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 to 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. 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?
Too often, we do our elders (and ourselves) a disservice by pretending that they’re incapable of manipulative behavior. Everyone is capable of manipulative behavior, and it often stems from nothing more than fear.
Older people can easily become frightened. They can no longer drive. They can cook, but have no control over when you can go to the grocery store. So it’s important to be sensitive to your mother’s perspective, but 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 martyr. If you think she has problems now, imagine where she’d be if you were gone! You must take care of yourself — both physically AND mentally.
For starters, don’t let her run amok through your schedule. It makes sense that she will become fixated on mundane matters. Respect her by being honest. Just because she’s old, don’t be afraid to say “No.” For example, “We just went to the store yesterday; we’re not going again today.” Increased anxiety is often a part of aging, but just because her anxiety rises doesn’t mean yours has to. You don’t have to allow her “crises” to become your day-to-day reality.
You said that she invents situations to get what she wants. If you think it will be productive, call her on what she’s doing — but if she denies it, it’s not worth fighting about. Simply refuse to give in. Life has a way of going full circle. We start out as children who want our way. As we age, many of us revert emotionally to that state. To put it bluntly, you need to respond to her as you would a child. Give her only what you are able and willing to give her.
Manipulative behaviors are a result of her not wanting to ask for something you might otherwise be perfectly willing to provide. For example, she might simply want to go out for a ride, but instead of asking you directly, she’ll invent a burned-out lightbulb or the need to go to the store. To counter this, 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. Then treat each request accordingly.
Set boundaries. You said that you arranged activities she can handle. Create some distance so that she’ll have to make a different choice. Don’t be defensive — if you do, 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.
We create the relationships around us. If your mother is acting like a child, you have created it. She cannot act this way without your consent. You can sustain the dysfunction, or you can become more reasonable toward yourself — and empower her in the process.
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