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Caregiving & Relationships: Setting Boundaries

Caregiving & Relationships: Setting Boundaries

Welcome back to our Caregiving & Relationship series. Last week, we looked at The Value of Training and its impact in a family caregiving setting. Gayle Alston, director of training at Rosalynn Carter Institute for Caregiving, Sherry P. White, a project manager at Schmiedling Home Caregiver Training, and Julie Cherry, Care Manager at Blakeford At Home, provided great insight on the topic. Some of the takeaways included:

  • Training promotes confidence which leads to decreased stress-levels
  • Learning to effectively communicate benefits everyone
  • Training improves the recipient’s quality of life
  • Training has a positive effect on the entire family unit

This week we explore why creating boundaries is important to maintaining healthy relationships.

With the Super Bowl just around the corner the word “boundaries” probably brings to mind images of the sidelines on a football field. We can hear an announcer proclaiming, “…out of bounds” as the player steps over the line. These lines are there to let you know the appropriate area the game is to be played. This is not unlike relationship boundaries, particularly those in a caregiving relationship. Like the lines on a football field, boundaries draw out or delineate what we define as appropriate physically, emotionally, verbally, etc. in our interactions with one another as well as our expectations in the relationship. Boundaries are what defines our sense of self. They are how we differentiate that sense of self from the various relationships we maintain. It is within these boundaries that we give ourselves space and maintain our personal integrity.

Anne Tumlinson, founder of and aging services expert says, “Boundaries are the flip side of asking for help. And if you can do both… if you can learn to say, ‘No’ and ‘I need your help,’ you might just survive this experience [of caregiving].”

Communication is Key

Someone once told me that, “you teach people how to treat you.”  How you do that is through clearly articulating your boundaries. First, though, you need to determine those boundaries.

“You can’t set good boundaries if you’re unsure of where you stand. So identify your physical, emotional, mental and spiritual limits,” says psychologist and coach Dana Gionta, PhD. ‘Those feelings help us identify what our limits are.”

Boundaries are so important in a family caregiving situation, where emotions can often run high. After all, families can have strong emotional investments in a loved one and how best to care for them. As an example, one of your boundaries might be telling a family member the only calls you’ll except in the middle of the night is for emergencies because you need your rest. Or that you are not available at certain times due to your own immediate family obligations, health, or emotional well being.

Keeping Your Sense of Self

Relationships within a family all have an impact in family caregiving. After all, emotions can run high when making decisions about a loved one’s care. As part of a family, we learn relationship patterns and boundaries early on in our lifetime, be they healthy or not so healthy. Those relationship patterns and ability to set boundaries often follow us into adulthood.  Even sibling birth order can play a role. For example, an older sibling may have taken on more responsibility in the family through the years, and now feels they must take charge of decision making when a loved one cannot without asking or accepting offers for help.

When boundaries are not clearly drawn and maintained, we can relinquish our sense of self in the process. We may find ourselves taking on more than we can realistically manage at the expense of our own physical or emotional health because we feel we cannot say no to requests, and even feel guilty asking for help from other family members. Give yourself permission to say “no” and not feel guilty about it.  As Tumlinson notes, “. . .if guilt is motivating you to say yes when you want or need to say no, then it’s limiting your potential to have the impact you were born to have.”

Working with Boundaries

My 89 year-old mother lives with me. I have a sister and adult niece who share in our family caregiving roles with her. We have had to painstakingly sit down and spell out what we were realistically willing and able to commit to in her care. We wrote it all up in bullet points. We then set a date to sit down in a restaurant, away from Mom, to discuss them. This helped us come to an agreement on many things like who would be her power of attorney (POA) for medical and financial plus a long-term plan should it become unsafe for her in her current living situation.

We still feel the stress of caregiving. However, awareness of the need for boundaries has now given us a way to work together. Boundaries allow us to honor our own as well as each other’s personal space and integrity. A playing field of sorts.

Would you like more help or ideas on this topic? I’ve gathered a few resources below.


Read the Rest of our Caregiving & Relationships Series

The Value of Training
Coping with Guilt
Hiring a Professional Caregiver

Reverend Sherry Perry, serves as staff chaplain with Blakeford at Green Hills to residents, family, and team members. She is board certified with both the Board of Chaplaincy Certification Inc., (BCCi) an affiliate of the Association of Professional Chaplains (APC), and the National Association of Veterans Affairs Chaplains (NAVAC). She received her Master of Divinity from Vanderbilt Divinity School.