Who moved the lines? Setting boundaries.
What kinds of problems do you have setting boundaries?
Setting boundaries is hard. It is for me. I suspect it is for most people. Most of us want people to like us. I find there isn’t enough “me” to go around. Admittedly, this is not one of my strengths, but they are skills I need in dealing with my parents.
When we first moved in together, to them, we seemed available all the time. The “G’s” (my mom and dad) had questions about every new technical device in the house, questions about unfamiliar sounds and requests for tasks they wanted done. We got knocks on our bedroom door late at night, in the middle of the night and early in the morning. It was clear that we had different expectations about how this arrangement would work. We wanted to help with things they were unable to do but we weren’t here as BFF’s. We had to set boundaries or everyone was going to be miserable.
The “G’s” couldn’t cook, clean, shop or pay bills by this time. Keeping medications and insurance issues straight was too hard for them. We took on those jobs. However, they still wanted to manage the way we did those things. It’s understandable, letting go of control is hard and it is another loss in the many we experience in old age.
I’ll share one minor example. My mom was an amazing cook. Her specialty was pies. She couldn’t bake now because of her blindness. My dad thought I would make him pies at least a few times a week. I like pie as much as the next person but we consider dessert a treat, not a staple. We had to make some compromises.
The first issue was agreeing about what is, and is not, an emergency. To the “G’s” an emergency was:
- I can’t open my email, or email attachment.
- A lightbulb burned out (one of five in a room).
- We are almost out of toothpaste, toilet paper, Kleenex or bananas. (Almost, means we still have extras but are afraid of running out.)
- The car needs an oil change.
To me an emergency was:
- I feel ill or I’m in pain
- One of us has fallen.
- I forgot to take my noon pill, what should I do?
- There’s a leak in our sink.
- Or even, I’m really hungry, when are we going to eat?
Clearly we were not on the same page. Slowly we’ve agreed on most things but it was/is not always easy. My dad is very protective of my mom. If she wants something, by golly, he will get it for her. She doesn’t like to ask us for things but will ask my dad to help her. She asks him for things she shouldn’t have. Eight years ago we still watched her blood sugar carefully. She asked my dad to get her secret stashes of candy. He can’t say “No” to her. I can tell you it’s hurtful being called “The Food Nazi.”
Boundaries change as elders become more debilitated—less able to do things for themselves. The G’s can’t go anywhere by themselves now, so secret stashes of candy are out. Now that Mom can’t get up on her own, she asks my dad to get her up. He can’t do it, but in her mind he will always be the strong guy she married. After a few near disasters and some “serious talks” he is better able to say no, but she still asks.
We are lucky. Some of you face much harder scenarios such as the elder:
- Who refuses to bathe
- Thinks you’re stealing their money
- Won’t take their medicine
- Accuses you of trying to hurt them
- Uses old grievances in a hurtful way (You never were as good as your sister)
- Refuses help but clearly needs it, in fact throws you out
We have faced versions of some of these but I know others have it much worse. Visit the Resources page for book suggestions I found helpful.
What are the worst boundary problems you’ve faced in caring for an elder?