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When and How To Say "No" to Caregiving

By Deborah Colgan

(Page 1 of 3)

When is it time to say “No”?

How does a caregiver know when he or she can no longer manage the daily caregiving routines and planning responsibilities? What signals alert the caregiver that he or she is in trouble of getting lost in caregiving? Can a caregiver who cherishes a loved one set limits on responsibilities without feeling guilty or morally bankrupt? These are questions at the heart of successful, long-term caregiving. Unfortunately, for most caregivers, these questions do not arise until they are feeling overwhelmed and depleted. Being able to say, “No, I can no longer continue to provide care in this way,” may not only save the caregiver from emotional and physical burnout, but can also open up opportunities of shared caregiving responsibilities with others while deepening the level of honesty and openness in the relationship.

Saying “No” may seem like a harsh statement to a caregiver who prides herself on being a helpful, kind and loving person. In fact, most caregivers choose to become one because they feel a moral imperative to do so. This imperative may come from a number of sources including family relationships and roles, friendship ties and social expectations. Families often select the primary caregiver from cultural norms such as the youngest unmarried daughter or the oldest son as being responsible for a parent’s care. Friendship ties provide many single elders with caregivers who act in lieu of local family members. In the United States, the social norm is for family and friends to provide care to elders first before the government. Current statistics show that the majority of elder care is provided by families and other members of an elder’s informal social network. Proximity is also a component in caregiving. The closer one is geographically to a loved one, the more likely he or she will become the caregiver. Personal values derived from one’s faith or spiritual practices may lead a person to feel called to provide care. Moral decision making based on humanistic values such as, “Everyone has the right to stay at home if they choose no matter what,” may encourage a person to become a caregiver. Wherever the imperative is coming from, the role of the caregiver is intimately linked to that person’s code of ethics and the way in which the person chooses to act in his or her own life.

What does saying “No “mean anyway?

Is it a final giving up of duties that implies the caregiver is ending the relationship and leaving a loved one to fend for himself? Maybe the “No” means, “I’m tired and feel trapped.” Maybe the “No” means, “I have failed to be all I could be as a caregiver.” Maybe the “No” means, “I can’t do what you want me to do and I feel inadequate.” Or maybe the “No” just means, “ I am so tired, I have to stop.” The word “No” can have different meanings for different people. “No” doesn’t necessarily have to have a negative connotation attached to its meaning. “No” can be understood as a pause, a time for reflection, a breathing period or, “Let’s stop and talk this over. Things need to change.”  Exploring the meaning of “No” for the caregiver is often the first step in establishing better emotional boundaries.

Healthy emotional boundaries are important in helping the caregiver distinguish between his or her own needs and the needs of the person being cared for. Boundaries remind the caregiver and elder that their relationship is between two adults and that there need to be expectations of mutual respect and autonomy for the relationship to be successful.

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