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Setting Boundaries with Difficult Elderly Parents as a Carer

Article by Daniel Westhead Daniel Westhead Sure Safe Alarms

When parents grow older and need a little more help, it’s common for their adult children to step in. We know that the vast majority of elderly people prefer to age in place in their own homes rather than going to a care home, and care from family members can allow them to do that.

However, trouble can arise when there are conflicts between older parents and the children who care for them. Sometimes, long-standing problems are worsened by the tensions of caring. In other cases, parents who have previously had good relationships with their children become harder to get along with because of medical conditions such as dementia.

In many of these situations, setting psychological limits can help.

Below, we’ll discuss difficulties with caring for older parents, the process of setting boundaries with difficult elderly parents and techniques to address the strong feelings that can arise during family care provision.

What are boundaries?

Essentially, they are your own personal rules about:

  • What you will do
  • What behaviour and treatment you will accept directed toward you

Boundaries around your behaviour might be something like, “I will clean your home once a week, but not more often than that.” If your elderly parent lives in your home, a boundary might be, “Thursday night is my night out with friends, and I won’t accept calls during that time. My brother will be available to answer calls in the case of emergencies.”

Boundaries around other people’s behaviour can often be stated as an “if x, then y” statement. An example is, “If you shout at me, I will leave.”

What’s important to know about them is that they are not about controlling other people’s behaviour in a forceful way. You can’t have a boundary stating that someone else cannot do something. Your boundary simply states what you will do if that other person does the unwelcome behaviour.

Another key point is that they sometimes should be strong but not totally immovable. For example, you may make exceptions for genuine emergencies.

How can you start setting boundaries with difficult elderly parents?

It can be tricky to put limits in place when you haven’t had them before. Here are some steps you can take to get started.

1. Decide what your boundaries are

Boundaries got their name because they are about drawing the line between what’s acceptable and what’s not. So, you’ll need to decide what behaviour simply isn’t acceptable to you and is over the line.

2. Decide what you will do if your limits are violated

If your older parent doesn’t live with you, leaving or hanging up the phone can be a very effective way of keeping limits firm. You can simply say to your older parent that you are not open to talking about politics on the phone, for instance, so if they bring up political arguments, you will hang up.

If your elderly parent lives with you, leaving or hanging up the phone obviously isn’t an option. But you can say that you simply will not respond to conversation about politics.

As another example, if you have a problem with your older parent telling you what to do as you are cooking dinner, you can say that you will stop cooking if your parent comes into the kitchen and begins giving orders.

3. Communicate your limits

Here, it’s important to be calm and clear. The right time to communicate your limits isn’t during an argument. It’s during a quiet moment where you can set out what you’re going to do from that point on.

4. Maintain your boundaries

The most difficult part of this process is putting your boundaries into action. That means sticking to what you’ve stated you will and won’t do.

If you have said that you will leave if your older parent shouts at you, then you should follow that through. If you have not put strong limits in place before, your older parent may be shocked and angered at this new change. However, if you continue sticking by your boundaries, they will usually begin to understand that you mean what you have said.

Important notes about setting boundaries with difficult elderly parents

Think about medical conditions first

When you’re deciding on your boundaries and what behaviour is unacceptable to you, it’s essential to first know whether there is a medical reason for your older parent’s behaviour.

If your elderly parent hasn’t been diagnosed with dementia but is beginning to be uncharacteristically argumentative or unreasonable, perhaps it’s time to ask their doctor for a dementia check.

Some medications can cause emotional problems or confusion in elderly people. Some medical conditions other than dementia can also have psychological effects in the elderly. For example, urinary tract infections and dehydration are associated with delirium and confusion in the older population.

The bottom line is that an older person with dementia could be angry because they believe you are stealing their possessions and can’t be reasoned with. Because of their condition, they won’t learn to alter their behaviour.

That doesn’t mean you can’t still set a boundary for yourself to follow. You can still say to yourself that if your older parent with dementia begins yelling at you, it is okay for you to leave the room. You just have to accept that your older parent with dementia won’t understand this and won’t learn not to yell.

Boundaries aren’t the only way to manage conflict

Setting boundaries with difficult elderly parents can be a painful process. While limits are important and powerful, there are other ways to manage conflict too.

Before you decide whether to address a problem by setting limits, you should think about why your parent is behaving in the way you don’t like. Can you address the root cause of their behaviour?

For example, let’s say you are struggling because your older parent often wants you to come to their home to help them. You feel you need to spend more time with your own family, and often your older parent’s requests don’t feel essential or necessary.

You could set a boundary by saying you will only come to their home to help out on certain days, at certain times, or only so many times a week. But that’s not addressing the root of the problem.

Does your elderly parent want you to come to their home because they are lonely? Or are they afraid of being alone in an empty home in case of accidents like falls? Are they actually struggling with some physical tasks but hiding their problems from you?

It might be that arranging social interactions for them would naturally reduce their demands on your time. Perhaps home accessibility adaptations or a personal alarm with fall detection would help ease their fears about having emergencies or falls while alone at home.

Handling the emotional effects of caring for an elderly parent

Caring for an older parent always has emotional impacts, even when the relationship between parent and child is good. Carers may just feel tired or depressed if much of their time is spent on caring. It can also be sad and worrying to see a parent experiencing a physical or cognitive decline.

So, what can help you with handling the emotional effects of caring for an elderly parent?

Respite care

It’s often said that you can’t provide good care if you have no fuel in your own engine. That’s one reason why it’s so crucial for carers to get time to themselves.

You might want to ask family members to step in and provide respite care for a given amount of time so that you can take a break. Sometimes care homes also allow seniors to stay for short periods to provide their carers with respite. There are also companies that will provide respite care.

Let out your feelings in a healthy way

It’s important not to bottle up all of the difficult feelings about caring for an older parent. You could seek out therapy to help you handle the emotional effects of caring for an elderly parent, or try a carers’ support group.

Know when it’s time to move to a different mode of care

Sometimes, it’s just a fact that care from a family member is no longer the best way to keep an older parent safe. This might be because your parent’s health needs are increasing, their dementia is worsening, or their behaviour toward you continues to be unacceptable.

It’s okay to recognise that a situation is no longer healthy for everyone involved. Even if your older parent doesn’t want to move to a care home, sometimes it is actually the best option.

How SureSafe helps carers as well as seniors

It’s well-known that personal alarms for the elderly help keep older people safe if emergencies or falls occur. A simple one-touch alarm allows a senior to call for help with the press of a button, and a fall detection alarm even calls for help automatically if an elderly person falls.

These functionalities help carers too. They offer peace of mind to carers who need to leave their older parents alone. It’s reassuring to know that if you need to leave your parent’s home to go to work or be with your own spouse and children, your elderly parent will have a way to call for help if needed.

SureSafe’s range of personal alarms offers these one-touch and fall detection features, as well as many others. Just give us a call on 0800 112 3201 to chat about which of our alarms might be best for you. Alternatively, reach out to us through our live chat, or you can request a call back.

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