Dealing with Manipulative Seniors Receiving Care

By Richard Asa @RickAsa
January 22, 2017

It can be an exhausting ordeal without some intentional adjustment.

Sometimes the best of intentions by a caregiver can be met with manipulation from the senior receiving the care.

“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,” writes Carol Bradley Bursak. “The parent wants the adult children to be there all the time.”

If this sounds familiar, you’re probably in a very manipulative relationship with your elderly parents or other loved ones.


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The relationship dynamic could be one that has played out for a lifetime and is manifesting strongly now while you are taking care of an elderly, needy parent.

Or the behavior could be fear driven, Bradley Bursack writes, a result of feeling a loss of control such as the inability to walk or incontinence. In that case the senior might lash out at the one person they know won’t leave them.

To handle the behavior, maybe you can give back some of the power, assessing whether you’re taking more control than you need to. Let an elderly person take control of whatever his abilities will allow, Bradley Bursack writes.

There also are situations in which a manipulative elderly person is a narcissist.

Perhaps there has been childhood abuse and a lifelong lack of bonding or closeness, writes Karyl McBride, PhD. “You may have had limited contact for years or even no contact. Maybe you have a superficial relationship and talk only about the weather or mundane topics. Now your parent has reached the age where elder care is needed.”

To be able to provide any kind of meaningful care, you have to go through a period of reeducation, says McBride, PhD, author of “Will I Ever Be Good Enough: Healing the Daughters of Narcissistic Mothers.”

That “recovery model” includes acceptance, grief and separation or individuation. By learning who you are in a twisted relationship you can decide how much care you can and want to provide without being manipulated.

“It is important to discern your own value system. If you are continually guided by guilt “you will not necessarily make good decisions or be a considerate caregiver,” McBride writes. “The important thing to remember here is that if your parent had limitations in empathy and was unable to love, this does not mean that you cannot love.”

Some parents are so “toxic” that their adult children can’t be around them or care for them. But that’s a very individual decision you should make only after you’ve taken steps toward recovery that clarifies your relationship.

You also need to be mindful that manipulative behavior coming from your elderly mother or father could be a sign of dementia.

Kay Bransford calls her parents the “senior edition of Bonnie and Clyde.” They both tell her defiantly they will continue to drive even though their licenses have been revoked, then soon forget what they would tell a police officer who pulls them over.

It makes Bransford feel as though she’s being manipulated, she tells Aging, and that adds to the guilt that caregivers in her position often feel. But, both of her parents have been recently diagnosed with dementia.

"Sometimes caregivers assume that (their loved ones) are being manipulative because they just can't believe their behavior," explains Amanda Smith, MD, medical director of the Byrd Alzheimer's Institute at the University of South Florida. “But in reality, people with dementia aren't able to think through the process of manipulation.”

Still, Smith estimates that one quarter of the caregivers she interacts with are like Bransford and question her about whether their parents are being manipulative.

Whether they know they’re challenging or not, difficult seniors can be exhausting. “Make sure that you're doing things to replenish yourself — body and soul,” writes Connie Matthiessen, senior editor of “This will help you stay balanced and less reactive. Maintain a regular exercise regime to blow off steam, and arrange for regular weekends off and vacation time if you can. Some people find that being in nature or meditating helps them maintain their perspective.”


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April 07, 2020

Reviewed By:  

Janet O’Dell, RN