Caregiving 101: Part Three: Balance and Boundaries

It was 4:30 am. My phone vibrated incessantly next to me. I blinked blearily at the screen, recognizing it was Dad. Again. I had lost count of how many times he’d called me already. I had as many messages as I did missed calls. Each voicemail was similar: I was trying to steal his money, family used to mean things, I didn’t keep my promises. I didn’t have to answer the phone to listen to that, right? But I felt like I did. Every time I didn’t answer, I wondered if this time there was a genuine emergency. Did he actually need me? Maybe he was scared or sad and needed someone to listen to him. Wasn’t that the task I had signed up for? to make him feel better and take care of him?

Thoughts and feelings like this were an everyday occurrence for me. The more his filters disappeared, the more phone calls I got. The staff where he lived called me more often. His room looked like a giant, hoarder mess. He needed more doctor’s appointments. Caregiving is a full-time job, but I was already working a full-time and part-time job. I had church activities and responsibilities, other friends and family obligations, and my own life and finances to manage. Caring for him on top of that felt impossible. I desperately needed a balanced life with some boundaries in place.

Implementing that was not easy. Every time I didn’t pick up the phone, I felt a stab of guilt. I was doing this poorly; I was failing; I was selfish. I cringed whenever I took him to the doctor, wondering if he would rant about what a bad daughter I was. What was he telling other family members about me? Would they listen to him? Were those emails of concern coming because they believed his tantrums?

I’m going to deliberately stop here and remind you that peacemakers spread a peace generated by Christ in us, and then directed outward. You can’t do that when your self-worth is bound up in what other people think of you. God knew I was trying my best. Anybody else’s opinion ultimately didn’t matter. Accepting good advice and support is important, but you can’t base how you’re feeling on what anyone—including your charge—thinks of you. All balance and boundaries stem from this.

They’re going to get mad at you. My dad was furious over how I managed his money. It was his money. Why did I keep stealing it? Why wouldn’t I give it to him? I must be using it for something nefarious. Instead, I kept it from him so he didn’t buy eight bags of Whoppers at the store when his pension money wasn’t enough to cover his cost-of-living expenses. Explaining the logic to him only seemed to make him angrier. Sometimes I was just the bad guy, but I knew I was protecting him; that was the most important thing.

I once spoke to a friend of my dad’s who treated me very rudely and hung up on me. I knew that the only reason this man had to think badly of me was because my dad had influenced him. I was really upset and it hurt deeply. I was giving up so much of my life for him and that’s how he talked about me? That’s how he saw me? And why would this stranger, who knew my dad had Alzheimer’s, assume the worst of me like that? I had to pray the Serenity prayer before I could go back to work.

The Serenity Prayer was something I had begun saying after attending Celebrate Recovery. I had been going to therapy as well. I honestly don’t think I could have handled this period of my life without these two resources. But—though they took up precious time—they were essential to my life as a caregiver. They gave me the tools and support I needed for balance and good boundaries.

I resisted therapy for a long time. Therapy meant weakness and admitting I wasn’t perfect. Even if I did it in secret, I thought everyone would know how broken I was. I thank God I started to go before becoming a caregiver. I had a few years under my belt to give me some coping tools. I recommend therapy strongly. Even if it’s just a place where you vent about what’s happening in your life, it’s worth it, though you should take advantage of everything else it has to hold. Explore the depths of what might be holding you back. Venting treats symptoms, not root causes. Everyone has something they need to work on. We’re human and we live in a sinful world. Don’t let your pride or fear of other people’s opinions, hold you back from getting solid support and help.

I’m convinced God led me to Celebrate Recovery. I went at the invitation of a friend who was leading worship, to support her. I didn’t really know what it was; I certainly didn’t think I needed any additional help. After all, I was in therapy now. That was enough. You might think like I did, that going to recovery means you’re really broken. That it means you’re an alcoholic, a drug or sex addict, or someone out of control. That’s simply not true. Recovery is about support. We’re all recovering from something, whether it’s codependency, people-pleasing, negative self-talk, or anger management. It’s not just about substances. It’s another form of therapy, but a specific kind that I found to be immensely helpful in creating balance and boundaries for caregiving.

Celebrate Recovery is a ministry that has support groups, structure, lessons, and prayers, but it’s more than that. I went on a teaching night—not a testimony night when someone shares their story—and I really enjoyed the teaching. It felt like a normal church service to me. I didn’t know that after the teaching we would split into small groups and that each person would have a chance to share—without interruption or judgment—their lives, their struggle, and their pain. Woman after woman in the circle shared, vulnerably and openly. No one tried to fix them; everyone just listened. I fully intended to pass, but instead, I found myself sharing my deepest, darkest secrets to total strangers. The telling was exhilarating. My fear and shame were broken by the truth and by the security of that safe place.

I went back again. I went through the steps and I did an inventory and I got chips and I became a leader. I couldn’t get enough of this way of life. It meant that as I struggled through helping my dad, I had a safe place I could share those struggles, with people who struggled as well. I could release some of that stress and keep it from bottling up inside of me, which is the way I’d been dealing with it my whole life.

Therapy gave me someone to gently coach me through my own rough areas, equipping me with tools for how to deal with hard relationships. CR taught me to support and listen to others while being supported and listened to myself. The combination was life giving. I’m forever grateful to both God and my friend for making it happen.

I urge you to do something similar. Set up a regular time for both therapy and support groups. It won’t look exactly like how I did it, but you need two things: accountability and support. There are groups focused entirely around caregiving and, if there aren’t any in your area, there are online options. I joined Facebook groups, signed up for newsletters, and utilized resources I found from Finding the resources may be hard, but I guarantee they are worth it. We cannot do this all on our own. It is impossible. And since we know that everyone goes into this unique situation blind, you need to develop those tools and resources. They will help you achieve balance and create boundaries.

For me those boundaries looked like not picking up the phone every time my dad called. They looked like having one designated day a week to go see him in person and do things like clean his room and help with laundry and take him shopping. They looked like not listening to him when he said mean things to me. Be as clear as you can with your charge about your boundaries. Early on, I explained my position about the phone calls as kindly as possible. I asked him to meet me in the middle since he had asked me to take on this role. We left it on a good note. Later on, he called me, apologized, and said he would try not to call me so often in rapid succession. That didn’t last long because he truly couldn’t help it, but just having the conversation helped me define my own boundaries.

Those boundaries will need to shift. I could have that conversation with my dad the first year, but the third year, it wouldn’t have done any good. At that point, I had to readjust to what was required of me and what I could give. Because it is a balancing act. When you decide to become a caregiver, you are giving up some of your rights for someone else. You are committing to taking care of those needs and that might mean sacrificing some of yours. It definitely takes time and energy. Because I worked full-time, I gave up a lot of my Saturdays to my dad because that was the day I could give. It meant not having as much free time to myself.

But part of the balance means you have to take time for yourself. You cannot deny yourself everything. You will burn out and will have nothing to give your charge. I went on vacations and made sure one of my brothers could take care of any emergencies while I was gone. If there was a special event I really wanted to go to on a Saturday, I went, and made up the time with my dad later. Walking this tightrope requires some flexibility and creativity, but it can be done.

That wasn’t always easy for me because I live by routines. It’s the way I remember things, it’s how I function, it’s what makes me a dependable, reliable person. But if I lived solely by routine—which was helpful because routine is good for memory loss—then I would lose out on that balance which was so essential to maintaining my energy and strength. Your situation will look different than mine, but the basics will remain the same. You need support, you need tools, you need boundaries, you need balance. Everyone does, they will just look different for each person.

I am so grateful I had some notion of what these things were when I started, but I didn’t always take advantage of them. I don’t even know if that’s fully possible. So don’t be discouraged when you fail, but pick yourself up and try again. It takes practice and I’m still working at it myself. But when I have those proper boundaries and live in balance, that gives God space to work that supernatural peace in me. I don’t base my feelings of self-worth on what other people are thinking of me. All that matters is what He thinks of me. He says I am His child. All parents are caregivers, and He’s the best. So I want to learn from His example and be confident in who He created me to be. Confidence equals inner peace. Not confidence in yourself, but confidence in God’s ability and opinion of you. You have to have peace with yourself before you can have peace with others.


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