The Importance of Setting Personal Boundaries
As surely as good fences make for good neighbors, personal boundaries make for better relations between caregivers and care recipients.
But how do you justify saying no to a loved one who simply wants to talk? Or only needs one more errand run? And what about a sibling who needs you to cover for them just this once? Or twice? Or fifth time?
As a caregiver, it’s important for you to set personal boundaries that will allow you to maintain both a sense of control and contentment with your own life.
At first blush, setting boundaries sounds easy. You say, “I’ll do this but I won’t do that” and that’s that, right? Wrong.
Setting boundaries, setting real boundaries, requires a systematic assessment of the following:
Understand what your loved one truly needs versus what would be nice is an important first step in setting boundaries.
Spend time writing down what your loved one’s most essential needs are and evaluating the frequency with which it must be met or provided. For example, if your loved one can no longer operate a stove, having a meal prepared or dropped off every day is essential. However, visits to the pharmacy, while a nice excursion, probably only need to be done on a weekly basis.
Making a chart with columns for daily, weekly, and monthly tasks may help you assess the level of true need.
“To different minds, the same world is a hell, and a heaven.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson
How you perceive your role as caregiver influences not only how much joy you receive from the role but also how you perceive the quality of your life.
In our society we’re taught that being generous with your time and resources is virtuous. As a result, people have a tendency to overextend themselves because they think it’s the right thing to do and because of how it makes them appear. But the truth is, taking on responsibilities for the wrong reasons—in an effort to earn respect, praise, or even love—may earn you little more than a sense of resentment, fatigue, anger, and a sense of helplessness. The long-standing dynamic of your relationship with your loved one will not suddenly change because of your efforts. In fact, in some ways it may become even more challenging.
Being a caregiver (to whatever degree you take on the role) should be a conscious decision and the prime motivating factor should be love; not appearances, not reparations, and certainly not guilt.
Identify and Enlist Support
Fact #1: You can’t do this alone.
Fact #2: You really, really can’t do this alone.
Many, many, many caregivers fall into the trap of trying to do it all. But instead of winning some great door prize at the end of the day most are left feeling utterly depleted, exhausted, and under appreciated. Some prize. Which leads us to Fact #3.
Fact #3: It’s important for you to enlist help early and often.
What starts out as just a weekly stop by to check-in on your loved one can quickly evolve into daily responsibilities that include not just pleasant conversation but finances, healthcare choices, home repairs, insurance claims, etc.
To keep all of this from falling on your shoulders alone, you must cultivate a support network early and keep all participants informed and involved.
Family, especially siblings, should be the first go-to resource. Be prepared that they may have different ideas about how to care for your loved one. But don’t worry about how things get done; just make sure they get done. By allocating simple tasks early, you spread the burden out as well as create a “we’re in this together” approach.
Beyond family, look to friends and neighbors who can also participate. Draw in as many helpers as possible and expose your loved one to them early. A large network will prevent your loved one from perceiving you as the sole caregiver. By involving them early, it’s less likely your loved one will perceive the increased involvement of others later as a failure on your part to live up to your responsibilities.
Beyond family and friends, avail yourself of community resources. Most communities have senior centers and faith-based organizations that offer the most necessary services including meal deliveries, transportation, and good old fashion company.
Realism is a bit like cough medicine. We all need a dose of it now and then but rarely do we like the taste.
Nonetheless, a dose of realism is essential to your success as a caregiver. Assuming you’ve honestly assessed your loved one’s needs, you’ve already taken an important first step towards it.
The next step is to match those needs with the abilities and availabilities of your network.
Begin by looking at the chart you created for assessing needs. With an honest heart, determine which things only you can do. Again, those are things ONLY you can do, not things you can do.
Assign yourself to those items then assign all other caregivers in your network to at least one task. Your name should not grace the list again until all other caregivers have been assigned a responsibility.
Naturally you’ll need to make sure all the members of your network are available to assist with the tasks assigned. If there’s a scheduling conflict make some switches but avoid removing someone from the list entirely and definitely don’t take on all the things that are inconvenient for others. They’re most likely inconvenient for you, too.
Once you have a plan, share it with your loved one. Be clear about when and how you’ll be assisting as well as when you won’t be available. Use the written plan to guide your conversation and show your loved one that others are available during your “down time.” This will prevent them from feeling abandoned and should lessen any potential guilt you might feel.
You probably think this next section is about being committed to caring for your loved one. But it’s not. This about being committed to caring for you.
About being willing to recognize that your time, your energy, your health, and your relationships are as deserving of a commitment of caring as your loved one is.
And while that sounds kind of soft and fluffy, it actually requires, at times, playing hardball.
Saying No to Saying Yes
Don’t let others guilt you into taking on more responsibilities or, especially, their responsibilities. If circumstances truly require you take something on for them, be sure to give them something of yours to handle in return.
Stay painfully aware your limits. You only have so many hours in a day and nobody else is going to step in to handle all of your life tasks simply because you’re doing someone else’s. Know your limits and say no when you must.
And know that when you say no, you do not have a responsibility to explain yourself. Don’t allow yourself to be dragged into conversations intended to guilt you into taking on more. Don’t engage in discussions that drag up who did what and when in the past. The past simply doesn’t matter at this moment. What’s matters is that your loved one gets the care they need and that your entire network carries the responsibility together.
You’ll no doubt know other families who are dealing with similar caregiving issues. Resist the temptation to evaluate the care you are providing based on what others are providing (and don’t let others try to do this for you). Every care giving situation is different. From the person being cared for, their level of need, and willingness to accept help to the network of caregivers, financial resources, and the commitment of family, there’s no simply no meaningful comparisons to be drawn.
Yes, you may learn about new resources and new approaches from others, but resist the comparison trap. The path you’re on with your loved one and network of support is completely your own. Your focus should be on it making sure it leads to a desirable place.