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When and How To Say "No" to Caregiving

By Deborah Colgan

(Page 2 of 3)

The ideal time to discuss caregiving boundaries is in the beginning when both people are new to the process of developing this special relationship. Talking about needs in a calm and supportive way allows each member to feel the other’s concern while acknowledging that the relationship will have some limitations. In an idealized world of caregiving, the care recipient could turn all problems over to the caregiver without any worries or stress and the caregiver would have limitless capacity for love and work. But neither of these situations is realistic. Getting off to a good start by talking about boundaries as part of a healthy relationship lays the groundwork for developing emotional resilience and flexibility to respond to an increase in the elder’s care needs, while managing the inevitable caregiver stress.

In practice, most caregivers address the issue of their own limits after the caregiving relationship gains full steam. Caregivers often get inducted into helping through a sudden major health crisis of a loved one (such as a heart attack) or by the slow but steady process of taking on tasks and responsibilities for the elder as she experiences aging and the loss of function. In either situation, the caregiver and care recipient aren’t necessarily thinking about being in a relationship but about getting the jobs done that need to get done. In the first instance, addressing the immediate and critical health care needs of the elder takes precedence over long-term care planning. However, as soon as the elder is stable, the time is right for the caregiver to discuss boundaries and limits. In the second instance, caregivers need to raise the issue of boundaries as soon as they begin to detect the first signs of their own stress or burnout. Signs such as avoiding the loved one, anger, fatigue, depression, impaired sleep, poor health, irritability or that terrible sense that there is “no light at the end of the tunnel” are warnings that the caregiver needs time off and support with caregiving responsibilities.

Setting emotional limits involves a process of change with five key steps.

First, the caregiver must admit that the situation needs to change in order to sustain a meaningful relationship. Without change, the caregiver risks poor health, depression or premature death. The primary caregiver is such an important person to the elder that impaired caregiver health puts the elder at further health risk. Second, the caregiver must reconsider personal beliefs regarding what it means to be a good caregiver. Since the caregiver generally has moral expectations of his or her own behavior, redefining what “should” be done to what is reasonable and possible to do can be a liberating moment. This may include lowering some expectations of one’s ability to do things and delegating tasks to others. Third, the caregiver needs to identify key people (friends, family or professionals) who can support and guide the caregiver through this change process. Frequently, caregivers join support groups with other caregivers to reinforce their commitment to change or hire a geriatric care manager coach. A support group is also a place to express anger, anxiety, frustration and sadness about the caregiving experience instead of inadvertently having these feelings pop out during a tense conversation with a loved one. Fourth, the caregiver needs to develop communication tools to express the need for boundaries. Honesty and simplicity in talking about feelings and needs does not come easily; particularly if one is not familiar with having these types of direct discussions. Lastly, the caregiver must be able to sustain this new approach while allowing the elder time, to react and express his or her feelings about the changes. Readjusting the balance in any relationship takes time, especially when both members have competing needs.

There is a simple but effective communication approach that can help caregivers express feelings and set boundaries.


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