This blog post first appeared on SixtyAndMe.com
by Kimber Westmore
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 as their caregivers, those boundaries were suddenly blurred. The lines of independence we 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 steep learning curve.
My parent’s 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 any of us 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 facts:
- 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 handy man and hero.
- She 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:
- Yes to cooking.
- Yes to visiting.
- Yes to handling the bills.
- Yes to doctor’s visits.
- And on it went.
My brother 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 unspoken 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.
I thought back to wise advice I’d received from a treasured friend. She 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 it is to offer a large piece of your pie to another person. Then, she shared how sad it would be if I had given the entire pie to that first person, leaving me with had 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.
The 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 joyfully cut and give them a huge slice wide. 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.