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.