The Caregivers’ Journey: You Need to Draw the Line

Marsha Kay Seff, a caregiver for 12 years for her mom and dad, knows the ins and outs and ups and downs of caregiving from the inside out.

Take a deep breath and buckle your seatbelt. You’re a caregiver: Sure you feel overwhelmed. It goes with the job; there’s not a family caregiver around who doesn’t feel stressed to the max – a lot of the time.

Caregiving is a rollercoaster. You go up and you go down, sometimes at virtually the same time. So buckle up and try to enjoy the best parts of the ride.

An important way to prepare for this journey is to set boundaries. 

You might not want to; you might believe you can do it all, and you might feel guilty if you can’t. But trust me, you have to try, try real hard. Because if you don’t set limits, you’re going to reach yours before too long. And then, you won’t be any help to your loved ones.

Though I didn’t always stick to my boundaries, I always made the attempt. I phoned my parents at their retirement home five days a week – not six or seven. I saw them for dinner and shopping on Wednesdays. I’d put out big fires as needed, but I tried to wait on the little ones that often died out by themselves by the following day.

I didn’t phone my parents on weekends and asked them not to call me then “unless you’re dead, and, then, think twice before dialing.” When I went on vacation, I left my sister in charge and I did not leave a phone number.

My parents knew about all the boundaries I set and respected them. In fact, they realized that if I became stressed and overwhelmed, they couldn’t count on me.

When I shared my boundary rules with an older acquaintance, she told me I was too selfish to be a caregiver, that my parents should move in with my sister. This woman didn’t understand; obviously, she’d never been a caregiver.

Family caregivers experience an internal tug of war daily over how much they can divvy up between kids, spouse and aging loved ones.  It’s impossible to do justice to any of them without setting limits. 

It’s tough saying “no,” but you need to learn. You can’t be responsible for every aspect of your loved ones’ care and it’s not your responsibility or even in your power to make them happy.  You need to realize that you can’t do it all no matter how hard you work at it.

You need to ignore the relatives who don’t chip in, but still believe it’s their duty to tell you how thin you need to stretch yourself. And you need to get over rationalizing that no one else can care for your loved ones as well as you.  Actually, that might be true, but it’s not worth losing yourself in the process.

There’s no doubt that lacking clear boundaries leads to increased stress, depression, anger and burnout.

To protect yourself, you have to identify your limits and give yourself permission to set them. Relinquish self-doubt and guilt; they won’t help you or your loved ones.

You also need to make caring for yourself a priority. Putting yourself first gives you energy and peace of mind to be there for others.

You need to seek support and ask for it. When your family or friends ask what they can do, don’t be shy. Tell them. Helping you is a gift they might enjoy giving.

Caregivers live their daily lives very close to their boundaries. But if you recognize them and believe it’s OK to set them, life will be more manageable.

As a caregiver, taking the time to renew yourself is imperative. Don’t be afraid to do it. 

Sponsored by Right at Home, In-Home Care & Assistance, www.rahtemecula.com, (951) 506-9628, loretteoliver@rahtemecula.com; www.rahencinitas.com, (619) 200-2110, alex@rahencinitas.com; www.rahlajolla.com, (858) 277-5900, info@rahlajolla.com.  Contact Marsha Kay Seff at mkseff@gmail.com.


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Lisa Barreras February 07, 2013 at 01:13 PM
Excellent article. Thank you. I was a caregiver for my Mom for years, way before she ever became elderly and needy. It's tough. I have a friend who I would like to share your article with. Hope it helps him. He is pulled every direction at work (23 years on the job) and by his Mother. He has little or no time for himself. It's sad. Thanks again
Marsha Kay Seff February 07, 2013 at 06:18 PM
I'll be writing monthly, so there will be lots of info for your friend. I also suggest he check out the blogs I write for Right at Home, In-Home Care & Assistance. there are four of them, all similar, so he has his choice. The only one not listed at the end of my column is the one for north county: www.rahnc.com, (760) 690-1147. if I had it to do over, I'd probably hire a geriatric care manager or an in-home care & assistance company to help out when I was too weary. it's worth the cost if you can preserve your own health. thanks for writing.
Sterling Heart February 09, 2013 at 03:49 PM
Thank you for your very timely article. Perfect timing...and much needed.


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