Power Struggles, Part 2: How to Avoid Power Struggles

affordable home care, assisted home care, at home caregivers, care for older people, companion home care, disability home care, elder care in MinnesotaBe sure to read Part 1: Identifying Power Struggles with Elderly Parents.

When you engage in a power struggle while taking care of elderly parents, no one ends the winner.  The best way to win a power struggle is to avoid it entirely in the first place.

Here are some tips to help you avoid power struggles with your elderly parents.

1.  Identify the source of the power struggle.

You can tell that you’re in a power struggle when you find yourself arguing with your elderly parents over issues that are seemingly obvious or benign.  For example, Dad has always shaved every morning, and now he refuses to do it.  Or Mom won’t change her clothes even though she is physically and cognitively capable of doing it.

Once you realize that you are in a power struggle, take the time to identify the source of the power struggle, what specifically is setting your elderly parent off.  Remember, this is not usually apparent in the matter at hand.  If Mom refuses to bathe regularly, for example, there may be something bothering her that is not connected to the shower.  She may simply resent her children telling her what to do.

Once you know the source of the power struggle, you can communicate in a manner that avoids creating them.  In the example above, the woman’s daughter may find an indirect way of suggesting that her mother bathes more regularly.

If power struggles have ensued in the past, also consider asking someone else to address the issue.  Mom may respond less defensively to a different family member or a trusted friend.

2.  Pick your battles.

You can’t win every battle, and you won’t have the stamina to fight every battle either.  There is no need to exhaust all your energy on the little things.  If Dad is refusing to shave but is still bathing regularly, you may need to be satisfied that he is clean.  That way, you’ll have energy for something that is important to his health and well-being, such as seeing a doctor or needing a nurse to assist with medication dispensing.

3.  Allow them to keep control.

When you need to touch on sensitive issues, allow your elderly parents to be part of the decision-making process.  Avoid forcing solutions onto them.  Instead, enter into a discussion where, together, you brainstorm solutions and agree on one that is amenable to everyone involved.  Avoid removing their control with phrases such as, “You need to,” “I want you to,” or “You have to.”

4.  Make them feel in control.

Grant your elderly parents control by affirming their decision-making and acknowledging their independence where you can.  This might mean complimenting a well-cooked meal, asking them for advice, or agreeing with their judgments.  By affirming their control, you may create a relationship built on respect instead of suspicion.

5.  Avoid an audience.

When someone is prone to power struggles, never attempt to deal with issues while an audience is present.  The audience may be your siblings, a home health care worker, or an elderly friend.  When a conflict arises, people feel the need to save face or maintain power and dignity in the presence of an audience.  If you sense a power struggle arising or need to have a difficult conversation, minimizing your audience will help to minimize the potential power struggle.

6.  Don’t gang up.

Some people find strength by digging their heels into the ground under adverse circumstances.  Minimize adverse circumstances by avoiding situations where your elderly parents are going to feel attacked in a group setting.

7.  Realize that you may be the source of the power struggle.

Sometimes it’s not the elderly parent who is the source of a power struggle but the adult children caring for them.  If you are a person with a strong personality who needs to be in full control, needs to be in the right, or likes to micro-manage your surroundings, you may be the one who needs to step back and evaluate.  All people, including seniors, need to feel in control of their lives, and when people love their parents, it can be easy to want to step in and take control.


Carol Hauser, M.A.

September 18, 2012


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