Caregivers are a unique group of people. Naturally nurturing and compassionate, such empathetic traits can also lead to complex challenges. Creating healthy boundaries is especially tough when you are the type of person that wants to help. Learning when to say yes and how to say no is essential for caregivers to stay physically, emotionally and spiritually healthy.
Before I jump into my tips, tools, and suggestions, I'd like to share a story. It relates to boundary setting and caregivers who merely do too much for their well-being. For the sake of anonymity, I'll refer to this person as Susan, whom I met with over the course of several years while facilitating a caregiver support group many years ago. Susan’s mom, Jean, lived in her own home about 20 miles from Susan. Jean's husband had passed away five years earlier, and Jean never dealt with her grief and worked through the healing process. Her husband's death left Jean depressed and angry. She no longer socialized with friends and extended family, was not keeping up with responsibilities of home ownership, and was not addressing her health issues. Jean was showing signs of cognitive decline.
Susan, who was her primary caregiver, had a demanding job which required some travel and many hours. She had talked to her mom many times about moving to a senior community, where she would not have the responsibilities of keeping up her house and would once again be able to enjoy the company of others. Jean would not hear of it.
Instead, Jean relied solely on Susan to take care of home repairs and expected Susan to visit during the week and spend almost every Saturday with her. Susan’s marriage was suffering, as her husband felt as if her mom had taken over their life.
Susan loved her mother but knew that she was collapsing from the weight of being everything to her. She knew that as long as her mom refused to move into a care community, that the situation was only going to become more overwhelming.
When we discussed boundaries, Susan broke down in tears. She had read about the importance of creating healthy boundaries in relationships, and especially when one is caregiving for an older adult. She didn't know how to solve the problems she had with her mother.
Creating healthy boundaries allow us to take care of ourselves first so that we can enjoy healthy relationships with others. When caregiving, it is especially important to step back and ask the following questions regularly:
- When I say "yes" to something that has been asked of me, how does it make me feel? In other words, is saying yes causing stress or feelings of anxiety? If so, this is a sign that perhaps you are saying 'yes' to requests that you should be instead learning how to say 'no'.
- By saying 'yes,' what are you giving up? Is it time away from others that you love or maybe time away from being with yourself doing such things as reading, meeting with friends, exercising or other activities that you find joy in doing?
- Does a "yes" put me in a position of having to choose between people whom I love and care for and does it make me feel conflicted?
- What would happen if I say NO? Think about the consequences (or choices) that would have to be made? Are you willing to lovingly say ‘no’ even though it may cause hurt feelings? (I hope the answer to that is a YES!)
Creating healthy boundaries is not easy, and in fact, may cause hurt feelings. It's also essential to preserving your health and well-being. Caregivers cannot be all things to all people, no matter what the circumstance. Moreover, if you continually say ‘yes' when you want to say ‘no' it will inevitably lead to enormous resentment with the person for whom you are caring.
During our time together, Susan did help her mom through the move to a senior care community. Her mom wasn't happy and continually played with Susan's emotions by making her feel guilty for not being there as often and saying that she hated the food and they she hadn't made friends. Surprisingly (or not so!) when Susan talked with the staff, they told Jean seemed to enjoy many activities and ate at almost every meal. They did not see an unhappy resident.
With coaching, Susan was able to lose some of her guilt, spend more time with her husband, and learned to set boundaries when her mother tried to break down the fence. After a fairly rough three months, Jean has acclimated to her new home, Susan and her husband have taken a trip, and Susan even learned how to set boundaries with her job!
Creating healthy boundaries is not easy, but it is essential and will be one of the best gifts you can give yourself and those whom you love.
Pam Brandon is President/Founder of AGE-u-cate® Training Institute and a passionate advocate for older adults and those who serve them. She is the creator of the internationally recognized Dementia Live® simulation and empathy training program; firstname.lastname@example.org