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For Caregivers: Setting Boundaries with a Loved One

When loved ones are hurt or ill, all we really want to do is make them well again. Powerless to do that, we may overcompensate and take on every task and responsibility of care.

Unfortunately, caregivers who take that approach are likely to find that it eventually will take a toll on their health and relationships. Stephanie Taddeo, director of mental health for Visiting Nurse Association of Ohio, said caregivers should establish clear limits to what they are willing and able to do.

Setting these boundaries can be among the most difficult tasks in life. It might mean saying no to a sister with a substance abuse problem who needs help paying her bills. Or deciding that it would not be a good idea to move an ailing parent into your home.

“Be clear with your family and say, ‘I am not able to do that, but here’s what I am able to do’,” Taddeo said. “(The conversation) is going to come with consequences, and you have to be ready for that.”

Taddeo recommended bringing in a social worker or counselor who has knowledge of the person in need’s medical condition. This person can mediate family conversations and be an objective voice in explaining the need for a caregiver’s boundaries.

“You may be feeling like, ‘My family thinks I should do this. I don’t want to, but maybe I should. Maybe I’m a bad person because I don’t want to give up that much of my life’,” she said. “It’s important to find a neutral person who can come in and say ‘I support you in this decision. You’re willing to do this, but your loved one needs more. Here’s how we are going to compensate’.”

Here are three things for caregivers to consider as they set their own boundaries:

  • Identify – and if at all possible predict – your loved one’s needs. Ask yourself if you are able to meet those needs and still fulfill your responsibilities to yourself, your job and your own children and spouse.
  • As soon as possible, ideally before the need arises, set your boundaries. For example, you may realize that an elderly relative’s declining health will eventually make it impossible for him to drive. Before you are faced with making an open-ended commitment to help with transportation, decide whether you really will be able to provide rides to everywhere he wants to go. It may be best to coordinate with other family members to share this duty or identify other transportation options before committing.
  • Focus on what you CAN do. When the issue arises, you will be ready to explain to your loved one in need and to other family members how you ARE able to help.

“The most important thing is to figure out what are your boundaries are, what you are ok with doing and what is over the line,” Taddeo said. “And the more clear you can be with your family and the person you are caring for the better.”

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