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How to set boundaries with your aging loved one for your mental health

Experts share how to manage feelings of guilt and take time for yourself.

How to set boundaries with your aging loved one for your mental health

As children, we rely on our parents to care for us and meet our every need. In adulthood, caring for aging parents inevitably reminds us of all the ways our parents sacrificed to raise us. This can make us feel guilty when we cannot provide them with everything they ask of us as caregivers. 

“When adult children become caregivers for their elderly parents, the entire dynamic of the relationship naturally shifts,” explains Jami Dumler, a licensed clinical social worker at Thriveworks in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. 

For seniors and their adult children, going through this transition from former care provider to being cared for can be destabilizing for both parties involved. Because of this, Dumler says it’s important to discuss, set and revisit boundaries with elderly parents to minimize tension and burnout as a family caregiver.

However, this is easier said than done. As a primary caregiver, setting a boundary and communicating your needs to your older loved one can spur guilt.

Dumler says that many family caregivers often prioritize everyone else’s needs over their own, which is detrimental to not only the caregiver but the care they’re able to provide. “It is important for caregivers to remember that they cannot pour out onto others if their cup is empty,” she explains. “When caregivers consistently neglect their own needs, they can often become more on-edge, snippy, burnt out and resentful in their relationships because they feel very drained.” 

This was true for Rita Meadowbrook, who acts as the primary caregiver to her elderly mother. “Feeling exhausted, being cranky for no good reason, being resentful — these are all indicators I need downtime,” she explains. Meadowbrook says it hasn’t always been easy to maintain this boundary since she’s her mother’s source of transportation for all needs, including doctor’s appointments. However, taking time for herself in between these essential trips has become a non-negotiable.

Here are several expert tips for setting boundaries with aging parents, managing feelings of guilt and taking time for yourself when needed. 

1. Communicate needs and expectations

One of the easiest ways to establish necessary boundaries with an older loved one is to talk about expectations regarding care. Kim and Mike Barnes, founders of Parenting Aging Parents, say that communicating what duties the adult child will take on and what the parent will remain in charge of is crucial for maintaining harmony within the relationship. For example, Mike says his father is still in control of his finances at 84. However, if his father has trouble accessing his account online, Mike knows he’s expected to help. 

“Give your parent a notepad to write down questions they have for you as they arise, and then, plan to talk every evening after work.”

—Kim Barnes, co-founder of Parenting Aging Parents

2. Establish routines 

Whether you live nearby or your aging parent lives with you, outlining when you’re available to provide help and care — and when you need to focus on other priorities — is key. 

“Create a schedule, so there are clear parameters,” says Kim. Maybe this includes going on an outing twice each week or fixing your loved one a snack in the afternoon when you can take a quick break from work. A physical calendar helps elderly parents and adult children know when things are happening and what’s expected. 

If you find that your elderly parent frequently calls while you’re at work or performing other obligations, Kim suggests setting a call time each day that works for both of your schedules. “Give your parent a notepad to write down questions they have for you as they arise, and then, plan to talk every evening after work,” she says. This avoids constant interruptions and lets you know that it’s likely urgent if you receive a call outside this window. 

3. Reflect on all you do for your older loved one

For Westbrook, guilt often arose when she believed she wasn’t doing enough for her mother. “I think the most important thing a caregiver can do is to own their contribution to this person’s life,” she says. “When I accepted the reality that I do a lot; I am there for her a lot; I contribute a lot to making her life easier and more pleasant, the guilt began to melt.”

Jill Johnson-Young, a licensed clinical social worker, says to take this a step further by keeping a journal when guilty feelings creep up. “Journaling reduces guilt and allows you to see how much you are really doing,” she says. 

As a caregiver, it can be easy to get caught up in the stress of medications and doctor’s appointments. Johnson-Young says finding opportunities to enjoy spending time with your aging parents like during meals or activities, can help with feeling less guilty during periods when you’re unable to be there.

4. Validate feelings when setting boundaries

Depending on the medical limitations your older loved one may be experiencing, certain boundaries are non-negotiable to keep your loved one safe. Other boundaries may need to be established to protect your health and well-being — such as hiring additional help

When setting these boundaries, Dumler says to speak in a calm, positive demeanor. An example of a boundary may be, “I need help with all of this, so if you’re going to continue to live here, I need you to let me bring in a nurse to help a few days a week,” or “Your doctors and I do not find it safe for you to drive.” 

Then, acknowledge their feelings. For example, “I understand you are upset and that this is really hard, but I am going to have to take your car keys.” She explains, “This is a great tool to validate your loved one’s feelings and perspective while also asserting the boundary that is needed to keep them safe or to help you continue to give care.” 

“When I began to employ the strategy that I wasn’t responsible for anyone’s pain or feelings and just allowed my mom to be where she was, the results were much better.” 

—Rita Meadowbrook, primary caregiver

5. Allow your parent to feel their feelings

No matter how hard you try or what you provide for your aging loved one, it’s important to recognize that you are not responsible for how they feel. Though we all want our older loved ones to feel comfortable and cared for, the reality is that aging is a challenging process. You can’t change how they feel about their current situation. 

“I suggest new caregivers give the person the space and grace to have their feelings without trying to fix it,” says Meadowbrook. “When I began to employ the strategy that I wasn’t responsible for anyone’s pain or feelings and just allowed my mom to be where she was, the results were much better.” 

6. Seek support 

“There is an enormous emotional component to caregiving that really isn’t spoken about outside of the people who do it,” says Meadowbrook. Providing care for an elderly parent comes with many emotional hurdles and, when going it alone, can bring up feelings of loneliness and resentment. 

For new caregivers navigating this situation, Meadowbrook recommends working with a therapist who can help establish the necessary boundaries to preserve their mental and physical health. Taking advantage of resources like the Area Agency on Aging or local community groups that offer support can also help new caregivers avoid burnout.