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When and How To Say "No" to Caregiving

By Deborah Colgan

(Page 3 of 3)

This approach encourages the caregiver to speak from an “I” point of view, in a non-accusatory fashion, expressing the caregiver’s limitations or feelings and offering an alternate solution. Some examples of “I” statements are:

“I can no longer drive you to all of your medical appointments due to my work schedule and my limited time off. I know this will be a change for you. I suggest we look into other transportation options such as the Busy Bee Medical Transport Service.”

“Mother, I am unable to continue with the responsibility of cleaning the house weekly. I want to spend my time with you on other matters. I know it’s hard to let newcomers help, but I think it is time to hire a homemaker service you would be comfortable with.”

“Dad, I can no longer assist you down the outside stairs. I am worried about your safety and mine. I believe we need to build a ramp for easier access to your home. I have found a carpenter who has reasonable rates for construction.”

In each of the above statements, there is a presentation of what the speaker cannot continue to do, an acknowledgement that the change will have a consequence for the elder and a suggested solution. No attempt is made to make the elder feel guilty about the effort the caregiver is expending or the caregiver’s stress level.It is understood the elder knows the caregiver is working hard. Setting the boundary is the caregiver’s responsibility. There is, however, an invitation for discussion and joint problem solving. At first, expressing boundaries in “I” statements may feel awkward, but with practice, caregivers can learn to raise difficult topics by establishing a comfortable atmosphere for discussion.

Initially, the caregiver may experience resistance on the part of his or her loved one to dialogue about changes as to the provision of care. Gentle persistence is needed to attend to the need for new boundaries. Discussions that can be introduced at a time when both individuals have lower stress and are feeling quiet and comfortable with each other are discussions that have a greater chance of success. Avoid making decisions about change during emergencies. Waiting until the situation is calm, and both parties can take time to think through issues, creates an atmosphere of joint decision making and ownership of the outcome. Making changes in small steps toward a larger change gives everyone a chance to adapt comfortably.

Caregiving is a dynamic relationship that evolves over time. As caregiving tasks increase, so will stress on the caregiver. A caregiver and his or her loved one will manage this challenge successfully if each person is able to express directly what he or she needs, wants or can do. A relationship that allows for and respects boundaries and individual limitations can expand to include other caregivers without the risk of lessening the importance of the primary relationship that sustains the elder in the aging process.


Deborah Colgan, MA, M.Ed., NCC, therapist and educator, currently serves as the Director of Community Development for South Shore Elder Services, Inc., a private non-profit organization that is the Area Agency on Aging and Aging Service Access Point for eleven cities and towns in southeastern Massachusetts. Ms. Colgan has provided clinical and support services to families for the past thirty years


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