Caregiving Is All About Boundaries – Do You Know How to Set Them?

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Advice
about creating healthy boundaries fills entire sections of bookstores. I guess
that’s because determining how to set and apply healthy boundaries in real life
is challenging.

As
a couple, my mom and dad established their own boundaries throughout 65 years
of marriage. As kids, each of us knew that we brought joy to their lives. They
relished family celebrations. But we also understood how much they loved
spending time alone.

Their
ability to love us while simultaneously setting clear boundaries gave us security
as kids and freedom later in life within our own families. Looking back, I appreciate
the way my parents masterfully established boundaries which allowed us all to
thrive.

But
when it came for us to assume the role of their caregivers, those boundaries
were suddenly blurred. The lines of independence my parents had worked hard to
establish were suddenly rendered obsolete.

The
spontaneous surprise visits and traditional family celebrations were wiped from
the slate and replaced by demanding responsibilities, including overnight
stays. Independence (for anyone) was off the table – for the caregivers as well
as those for whom we cared.

Our
collective balance was tested. And each of us struggled in an effort to
stabilize. The whole experience set us firmly on a steep learning curve.

New Roles

My
parents’ newfound dependence on us grew ever more challenging over the years, as
their health challenges increased. They silently started to adjust their
expectations, relying on us as well as each other to sustain as much
independence as they could muster.

My
mother took over driving and spent hours tending to my father behind closed
doors, helping him maintain his dignity. They gave up their gambling getaways
to Laughlin, Nevada, movie matinees, and Costco dates.

My
mom never mentioned my father’s Alzheimer’s-induced new tendency toward verbal
abuse. Finally, both of them – entering their 90s – were trying to keep their
grip on the slippery bar of independence.

Establishing
new boundaries required all of us to face the fact that:

  • Dad needed care 24/7.
  • Mom needed someone to
    cook, clean, drive her to appointments, and join her emotionally as a new
    partner in the journey ahead.
  • Dad could no longer protect
    her or solve problems. He was unable to fulfill his longtime role as her handyman
    and hero.
  • Mom needed to feel
    safe.

Boundaries for the Caregivers

The
looming sense of responsibility for two people who had always been my heroes
scared me into sleepless nights and hours of prayer.

My
own life plans had never included the demands of parenting my own parents. I
knew that my brothers likely felt the same. At first, saying ‘yes’ was the only
available option: to cooking, visiting, handling the bills, going to doctor’s
visits. And on it went.

One
of my brothers tried to help because he was worried about me. He wanted me to
loosen my grip and let some of the “less-than-necessary” tasks go. He lovingly encouraged
me and showed me, (without verbalizing) what I had not yet considered:

“You
cannot do it all. And Mom will survive today without you.”

I
took his prompt to heart.

In
response, with every new request from Mom, I asked if the task was a “need” or
a “want.” Then, I’d ask myself if I needed to do something else with that time –
even if the conflicting appointment was just so I could sleep or enjoy dinner
with a friend.

Practical Steps

I
thought back to wise advice I’d received from a treasured friend some time ago.
She had told me to look at my life as a delicious pie, cut in generous slices.
To lessen the guilt of saying no, she recommended I think about how loving was
like offering a large piece of my pie to another person.

Then,
she made me consider how sad it would be if I gave the entire pie to just one
person, leaving me with nothing to share with others. This is what can happen
if you don’t set and honor your own boundaries.

I
thought of my children, grandchild, friends and the roles each fills in my
life. They deserve a slice of my life’s “pie.” It’s my job to share the pieces
accordingly.

This
analogy has blessed me with deep peace and less guilt-filled days. I am happy
that I can offer a giant slice of pie to my parents. Creating boundaries
enables me to do it joyfully.

I’m also grateful that my children can enjoy their slices – even though the offerings may be a little sparse this caregiving season. Even so, I want to make sure we all savor every bite. I also always reserve a thin slice for myself. I carve it solely for me. It’s my own carefully-crafted caretaking boundary.

How do you preserve your boundaries as a caretaker, parent, grandparent, and friend? Do you think you can do a better job of it? Why do you think caretakers don’t leave any time for themselves? Please share your thoughts with our community!

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