Three Tips for Setting Boundaries with Aging Parents

September 9, 2020 by Katie Davis

setting boundaries with aging parents

When we were children, our parents defined our boundaries clearly for us. When we went to bed… what we ate… how much allowance we received. As we became older and more independent, our parents redefined and adjusted their expectations of us, giving us enough room to develop as individuals while also providing us with a safety net of support.

This situation is reversed when adult children find themselves taking care of their aging parents but many of the same lessons apply. That’s why setting boundaries with aging parents may be one of the most necessary and important steps in every caregiving journey.

I spend a great deal of my time helping adult children and their aging parents navigate conversations about care options. It’s safe to say that I’ve seen everything from temper tantrums to outright riots. The roots of these conversations are as deep as the decades of relationship that exist between the parties.

Everyone usually wants the same thing: for their parents to age as independently and safely as possible. But the road to getting ‘there’ can be fraught with mistakes and resentment that stymie productive decision-making.

In many cases, I’ve had children pull me to the side and whisper, “Is it ok if I’m frustrated with Mom (or Dad)?” “Is it ok if I don’t want to put my entire life on hold to take care of them?”

The short answer is:  yes, of course it is.

The longer answer is that adult children who work at setting boundaries with aging parents report lower stress levels and an overall happier and healthier relationship with their parents over time. Ultimately, maximizing quality time together is the key to sustaining a mutually rewarding relationship with your parents.

To help you and your loved ones better navigate these conversations, I wanted to share a few best practices that I have found to be helpful when setting boundaries with aging parents.

  1. Speak the sacrifice. There are no happy martyrs in caregiving. When adult children or spouses fail to define or calculate how much time or energy they’re spending caring for a loved one, they often find their own health and happiness taking a massive hit. Voicing how and in what manner you can support your loved one for the long-term is key to building a sustainable plan going forward and to avoiding resentment in the future. It’s not your loved one’s responsibility to define your limit; it’s your responsibility.
  2. Define a mutual emotional ‘win’. Caregiving is a daily challenge that stretches your patience to its breaking point. That’s why it’s important for the caregiver and the person receiving care to define and align their efforts around what matters MOST to the individual in question. When working with older adults, I ask them “what do you want most?” And then I ask the same question in various forms over and over again, repeating their words and suggestions back to them until we agree that they have identified a realistic priority that is MOST important to them in the short-term. As the professional caregiver, I gently push back if what is most important to them is simply not possible (i.e. I want things to go back to the way they were before) and encourage them to move forward with what matters most to them in the NOW. In doing so, I stop wrestling them for control and instead help the older adult guide my support and efforts to the intended result. This is an emotional win for both of us. I know my support is helping them realize a more independent and secure aging experience, and they know I’m honoring their wishes and respecting their individuality along the way.
  3. Understand the dignity of risk. Your parents likely didn’t wrap you in bubble packaging and keep you indoors 24/7 to make sure you were safe, but boy, I bet they wanted to at times. One of the most common mistakes that I see caregivers make is prioritizing their loved one’s safety above all else. Successful aging is about prolonging the quality of our lives, not just the quantity. Even when a loved one is in the highest level of care, such as a skilled nursing facility with 24/7 monitoring and high staff ratios, falls and accidents do happen. If adult children can respect their parent’s desire for autonomy and independence while also acknowledging that it is not possible to prevent every accident or fall, then the family can work together to establish a plan of care that isn’t predicated on fear. Understanding that our parents have earned the right to take reasonable risk is part of accepting the normal and very human process of aging.

These are just a few of the tools and suggestions I have used over the years to guide families towards happier and more sustainable caregiving arrangements.

I hope you or someone you know finds them helpful while navigating your own journey! Please be patient with yourself and your parents. Remember, there is no ‘right’ answer, there’s only what’s right for you and your loved one.

Until next time,