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Posted April 27, 2005

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Elderly Behavior: Dad Is Controlling and Stubborn — Help!

Q. My soon-to-be 83-year-old father has been living with my husband and me since he hurt himself 10 months ago. I was dead-set against having Dad live with us, but my husband said it was for the best. It hasn't been!

Dad is very stubborn and wants to "control" us (though, of course, he won't admit it, but gets upset when we do things he does not like, like laugh -- I'm not kidding!). We've had fights (yelling matches) almost every night since he's moved in. My husband and I are tired of it, to say the least.

I'm an only child and have no one to help us out. Dad thinks he is the easiest person to live with and take care of, but believe me -- he isn't. I work full-time, and my husband takes care of Dad. Dad doesn't usually pick fights with my husband, he just waits for me to get home and starts in on me about something.

How do we stop this? Is there anything we can do to help us from going insane? We can only leave Dad for about two hours at a time, but when we come back from being out, Dad is angry or annoyed.

Also, Dad acts one way (nicely) when we have company, but when it's just the three of us, Dad's manners are terrible (from his eating habits to his wearing the same clothes for days). We've asked him why he does this and his answer is always "because I can." I know we can't make Dad change the way he is, so is there anything we can do to not let his behavior annoy us?

I know he is angry with himself because he wants to be able to do things like he used to, and he can't due to his age and being hurt. He thinks he can live by himself but he just can't. I know this makes him unhappy, but we don't want to be unhappy just because he isn't happy. Any help, thoughts or ideas would be very much appreciated. Thanks!

Michelle H., Daly City, Virginia

A. It sounds like there is a lot going on here. Let's take it piece by piece. Your dad hurt himself. Has he recuperated, will he recuperate, has he seen the right doctors, does he live nearby -- all these questions come to mind because your decision to move your dad in may not be a permanent one, or need not be just because your husband thinks it's the right thing to do. It may well be, but not at the expense of your and your husband's peace of mind, marriage and home life.

Next, have you had children? I don't mean to relate your father's issues to those of children, but teens can give us these same types of behaviors that are announcements of "I AM INDEPENDENT". (and to better convince the world -- or really themselves -- they choose to be loud, obnoxious and self-centered.) Employing the same techniques you would with a rebellious teen could be helpful. Ignoring is the most difficult skill of all, but once you learn how to let all of this be HIS problem, he may be easier to live with.

The fact that you say he is fine with company and then turns into his angry self when you are alone, implies that his anger is by choice, but you might still want to consider whether his doctor needs to run any tests. Inconsistent behavior, or unmanageable behavior, may have some physiologic causes -- even pain -- that you want to rule out.

Tough love and frank talk are the best interventions I can think of if the behaviors are manipulative and not disease/condition related. If there is dementia or other deteriorating condition, loss of independence makes fiercely independent people very angry -- actually it turns them into "Do not go gentle into that good night. types." Essentially, their loss will be everyone's loss.

You might want to consider a professional to mediate and lay out the options. These could include your home, his home with help, supervised care at night by someone else so you and your husband can have some alone time, residential care settings, or even adult day care. He may be desperately lonely, frightened and in pain from the accident and finding him outlets outside of your home might distract him from his woes.

Caring for a family member can be stressful even in the best of circumstances. But in situations like this, you have to look at yourself, your ability to care for him, and stay "sane,". because no amount of caring can be done if your home life is being destroyed. You need a professional -- a.geriatric social worker, geriatric psychiatrist, coach, counselor, or mediator -- to help you get control of this situation.

Stay in touch with us, even a weekly email to let us know what you are doing and what is working for you.

This answer has been provided by Sylvia Nissenboim, a licensed clinical social worker who has been working in the field of adult day services in the St. Louis area. She is the director of four adult care and enrichment centers for the American Red Cross and also operates a personal and professional coaching firm, LifeWork Transitions (, specializing in caregiving concerns, adult day care management and other aging services, such as virtual coaching and family care giving support groups. She co-authored The Positive Interactions Program, is a national speaker and is the immediate past president of the Missouri Adult Day Care Association and sits on the Missouri Governor's Advisory Council on Aging.  Sylvia can be reached  at

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