Establishing Healthy Boundaries for Caregivers: Benefits and Strategies
Maintaining healthy relationships with those we give care to is essential for both short and long-term success. Especially when you have a close relationship with the family member you are caregiving for, it can feel like you’re never doing enough and the to-do list is endless. And if your relationship is complicated, with a history of conflict or even abuse, maintaining a healthy caregiving relationship can be even more challenging.
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Consider setting boundaries as a caregiver as your ticket to preserving your energy, emotions, and time. By implementing healthy boundaries, we take a meaningful and necessary step in valuing ourselves, those we care for, and the relationship between us.
Understanding The Importance Of Setting Boundaries
Boundaries are commitments we make with ourselves and communicate with others to clarify what we are and are not comfortable with. Like an invisible fence, they help to define how we need and want to be treated, communicated to, and understood by others.
As a caregiver, it may feel like your caree’s needs, emotions, and day-to-day activities are more important than yours. When constantly prioritizing the needs of others over ourselves, it becomes easy to feel unappreciated, unacknowledged, and overwhelmed. This can easily lead to burnout, resentment, stress, and other negative feelings that affect our relationships and overall health. To put it simply, boundaries help us prioritize caring for ourselves, too. And the better we take care of ourselves, the better we can care for others.
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Perhaps you’re having a hard time saying “no'' to requests or demands from your caree. Maybe you don’t feel like those you’re sharing caregiving duties with are pulling their own weight, with you taking on more responsibilities than you initially agreed to. You might even start to see your regular self-care practices start to suffer, with you struggling to have healthy practices around diet, exercise, and sleep.
How to Set Boundaries as a Caregiver
It’s important that the people in your life understand the serious demands of being a caregiver. To help you have a healthy caregiving role, boundaries can be set with your caree, other caregivers, your caregiver support network, doctors, and anyone else involved in the care of your loved one. No matter who you’re setting a boundary with, every boundary starts with acknowledging your needs, feelings, and values. These four steps can help you get started in setting healthy boundaries as a caregiver.
1. Get Honest With Yourself About Your Needs
Check-in with your physical, emotional, and mental wellbeing. Start to notice when you feel negative feelings, like stress, resentment, anger, or frustration, and note the situation you’re in that triggers them. It’s likely that you’re lacking a boundary within that moment, and that’s your cue to a boundary you need to set.
For example, many adult children caregivers have their aging parents live with them in their home. In this situation, the necessary separation between caregiving duties, at-home life, and self-care can become blurred, making it feel like caregiving is a 24/7 duty. This can quickly become unsustainable and unhealthy, bringing a range of frustrating or challenging situations. Imagine you're in this situation (perhaps you already are), and your house has become messy and unorganized. With your plate full of caregiving, family, and work duties, and you barely having enough time to care for yourself, this can make you feel overwhelmed, frustrated, and even disregarded. If the mess is coming from your aging parents, with them not cleaning up after themselves, this can add to your stress and negatively impact your relationship with them.
These feelings are your cue to check in with yourself. Note that having a clean and organized house is important to you and why, and that you’re lacking something in your life to help maintain that. Here’s what those needs may sound like for you:
- A clean and organized house helps me save time and energy during the week, so I have more time and energy for caring for others and myself
- Keeping the house clean is important for keeping my stress levels low, and being a caregiver is already a stressful experience for me
- I feel safe and at my best when my house is clean and kept the way I like it, and feeling that way helps me be a better caregiver
2. Establish Clear Boundaries
In order to be successful, boundaries need to be clear and realistic. Let’s use the same “messy house” example here. A variety of healthy boundaries can be set to honor your needs to have a clean and organized home. The key is to make the boundary about your needs and values, rather than blaming the other party for your feelings. Here’s what those can sound like:
- Coming home to a mess makes me feel stressed and overwhelmed
- Cleaning up after others who have the ability to clean up after themselves makes me and my needs feel disregarded
- Cleaning my house on my own each week takes too much time and makes me feel tired
- If the house is messy, I have a hard time feeling at my best
3. Communicate Your Boundaries and Create Supportive Solutions
Now that you know what your boundary is, you can better create solutions that make boundary-respecting shifts in your day-to-life. Using the same example, here’s what those solutions can look like:
- If you’re single, you may need to set a boundary around your time so that you can spend more of it taking care of your home. Or, you may need to consider paying a housecleaner to help, if sparing time is difficult.
- If you’re in a relationship and share your home with your partner, you may need to discuss this boundary with them and explain that you need them to help in better caring for your shared home.
- If you’re a parent with children at home, you might want to enforce your boundaries with a chore system for children to help take care of your home.
- Depending on your career’s mental and physical health, you might have a conversation with them around your expectations of them partaking in household chores
4. Learn to Say No
Having the ability to say “No” confidently and kindly is key when setting boundaries. It starts with deciding you will no longer let certain things break or weaken your boundaries, and it especially helps when communicating your boundaries ends in a refusal of the other person to respect them. Simply put, your needs need to be non-negotiable and learning to refuse other’s disregard for them is important for you to be able to show up as your best self.
While following these steps, you may find that you need to make adjustments towards either your caregiving duties or other parts of your life. In all of these examples, communicating your boundaries opens up the conversation and lets your loved ones know that you’re struggling and you need their help. This can be difficult or may feel comfortable at first, but as you continue to communicate more boundaries, you’ll feel more confident in asking for support, so you can focus on being the best caregiver you can be.
Boundaries and Caregiver Self-Care Tips
Navigating conversations around boundaries can be challenging, especially if you are new to the process. It’s important to remember that boundaries are essential to your wellbeing and are a key part of self-care. Here’s some tips to help you along the way:
1. Set Boundaries Early
When possible, setting boundaries at the beginning of a new situation or relationship role can help avoid the stress of trying to break long-lived unhealthy habits and dynamics.
2. Leave Room for Flexibility
Your needs and your caree’s needs may change throughout your caregiving journey. Setting ground rules to adjust boundaries over time can help lay the foundation for a healthy caregiving experience.
3. Address Caregiver Guilt
Caregiving is an inherently selfless act, making setting boundaries and prioritizing your own wellbeing feel like a selfish act. Especially when it feels like you can never do “enough” for your care, setting boundaries around your self-care can result in caregiver guilt, a common and complicated experience for caregivers. Rather than feeling guilty, recognize that not addressing your needs doesn’t allow you to take care of yourself. And when you don’t take care of yourself, it becomes increasingly difficult to care for others.
4. Take a Break
Caregiving can feel like a marathon that never ends. Taking daily and weekly breaks to check-in with yourself and prioritize your needs can help ease tension and stress. Getting outside, taking a walk, and even just stepping away to take some deep breaths in a stressful situation can help minimize tension in your caregiving relationship while helping to reduce the negative impacts of stress on your health.
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5. Seek Help & Support
As a caregiver, each day may bring a new challenge that you may not know how to handle. It’s important to accept that you may need extra support. Seeking the help of a professional, either to support your mental health or help with caregiving duties you aren’t comfortable with, is a vital step in your self-care and your ability to best care for your loved one. There are also online and in-person caregiver support groups you may want to seek out, to help you feel less alone in navigating caregiving.
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