Drawing the Line on a Loved One's Demands


According to the AARP Public Policy Institute's 2015 Report on Caregiving, an estimated 43.5 million adults in the United States have provided unpaid care to an adult or a child in the prior 12 months.

Caregivers’ motivations to provide care range from love and compassion to duty and obligation, or some combination of those factors. Many (50 percent) feel they have no choice, according to the AARP report. Caregiving can cause physical strain and emotional stress, as most of you well know. All the while, they are providing $470 billion annually in unpaid care.

Besides the financial value of the care provided, unpaid care is the primary safety net for the disabled and elderly. Approximately 80 percent of the ill, disabled and elderly rely on family caregivers and other informal care arrangements. The value, the stakes and the risks are all high, so it is crucial for caregivers to approach these serious responsibilities realistically.

Boundaries Come in Handy

Surviving my own caregiving experience was greatly enhanced when I learned the value of setting boundaries. My mother has borderline personality disorder and my father is a passive enabler, so I grew up in a family with very few boundaries. My parents lacked the ability to understand where they stopped and others started—the very most basic principle of healthy limitations. Consequently, they were in no position to teach me anything except that boundary violations are a normal part of an intimate relationship.

As I left my past behind in pursuit of healthier ways of engaging with others, I also gained the courage to establish and maintain personal boundaries. I learned to say “no” and keep saying it until the other party believed I was serious. I learned to withstand the tantrums and tirades that came with no longer letting other people take advantage of me. I also gained the ability to understand that I truly was a caregiver by choice, not by constraint or obligation, and that I was able to define some of the terms of my commitment.

When I read caregivers’ forum posts and comments on my own blogs, I realize that many people are hurt most by their inability to set and maintain boundaries. Yes, Dad would like to continue to live with you and make your life hell with his criticism, demands and refusal to cooperate with his own care. After a lifetime of cow-towing to good old Dad, you might have actually come to believe his version of reality where you must allow him to consume your life.

Or, a previously kind loved one may suffer from dementia and not be able to make rational choices about their care. Guilt, obligation and the desire to be a good spouse or family member all encourage one to let boundaries become fuzzy and place this person's needs above your own. This seems to be the underlying dynamic of many of the posts (read, cries for help) I’ve felt sad reading.

You Count, Too

You’re not going to be a very good caregiver if you are sick or too stressed to function well. Plus, you have a right to enjoy your time on this planet. You can be generous to and compassionate with others, just be sure to apply some of the same consideration to how you treat yourself. You can negotiate and compromise to accommodate your loved one’s wants and needs while still valuing what you need to find joy and pleasure in your own life.

Empower Yourself and Set a Boundary

Where do you start if this is a new skill you would like to acquire? Begin with small steps, and be sure to validate your effort when you see positive results. People who are used to wielding power and having things their way by violating your rights and prerogatives may not respond well to initial changes in the dynamic.

You can explain the situation, but keep the explanation simple to avoid room for badgering and ongoing discussions that insinuate your boundary was merely a suggestion. Then you must follow through. It may take a while for your loved one to accept the new you, but in many cases they don’t have much of a choice, do they?

These are hard words, but when you are fighting for a livable life, I think they are fair enough. When they do come to accept the new you, you may discover newfound pleasure in your relationship that was previously missing.

If this is new to you, it will definitely feel scary at first, but please know that it gets easier. This is a process that may take time, but be patient with yourself and keep in mind that the long-term rewards can be great!

If you need additional help, your local library should have self-help books that will guide you through this process and give you concrete strategies to get going. There are even books for specific situations, such as setting boundaries with aging parents. If you can afford to, targeted counseling sessions can be extremely beneficial as well. The added support and validation may be what it takes for you to change how you interact with a loved one.

Sandy Morris was married for 32 years and was her disabled husband's caregiver for the last 15 years of their marriage. Working in the senior services sector for the last three years, her experiences on both sides of the caregiver equation allow her to provide valuable information on everything from VA benefits to common caregiver challenges.

War Veterans Association of Colorado

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My family does not have boundaries - and I come across as the bad guy when I say that I will not do certain things. As a kid I had my mail gone through, and my clothes would disappear and show up on my mother. I honestly feel like an employee sometimes instead of a daughter and it makes me feel sad, but I know they will not change. From what I have heard, both parents come from families where the children were brought up without boundaries, so I hope the 'buck stops here.' One of my doctors said - 'why don't you put yourself at the front of the line for a change?' My New Year's resolution is to do that.
Hi everyone. Hi Heart2Heart. Well we went to the assessment today! Guess what? My husband wants to be part of the "The Club"! The RN, David, was awesome. He asked my husband some questions about himself and my husband was in hog heaven. He talked about his growing up,his job and dementia. Of course there was a lot of rambling, but David was very patient and gave my husband lots of time. He took my husband's vitals and gave him a short memory test which will give him and the staff a better understanding of my husband's needs and capabilities. When we left my husband kept talking about how nice it was there and how David is such a"good guy". What is nice is the RN-David is very involved in "The Club". Couldn't have gone better. Last night after my husband's "mood" I barely slept and almost didn't keep the appointment. Thinking "Why bother-nothing will change". But I told myself to get in the shower and follow through. I'm glad I did. Thank you Heart2Heart!
Hi Sandy I just posted on another question. Then I saw this. It is right on the spot of what I'm dealing with. I am caregiver for my 41 year old son with William's syndrome and my husband who has Frontal Temporal Dementia. They run me stupid mentally, emotionally and physically. How do I set boundaries with them? We've got an assessment with a daycare center for respite for my husband and for my son it may be time for a group home. I don't know but I'm really getting desperate.