Healthy boundaries, happy relationships: How to set limits with ageing parents

As your parents age and their care needs start to increase, it is important to be aware of and set boundaries – not only to preserve your own sanity and wellbeing but to ensure they also maintain some independence and establish healthy, sustainable coping mechanisms. Without considering and setting boundaries, we can quickly become frustrated and resentful of our ageing parents and the demands they place on our busy lives.  

The amount of time you can spend with them and the things you are willing to do for them will vary depending on a host of factors including your relationship with them over the years, where you live, what you do for a living and what you have going on in your life. 

It is not uncommon for people caring for their parents to stretch themselves so thin that they start neglecting their own health, cease exercising and become depressed and burnt out.  Even if you have amazing parents who you love deeply and feel indebted to, it is important not to allow yourself to be consumed by their care to the point where you compromise your own needs and feel trapped.  It is possible to do your best to ensure your parents are well taken care of while still protecting and caring for yourself and your own family, if you have one. 

Setting healthy boundaries is not always easy or pleasant, especially if your parent has a difficult character or they have significant needs due to illness, but it is more positive for everyone the long run if you do. In the end, it means the time you spend with your parents, and the time they spend with you, will be more meaningful and enjoyable and everyones’ stress levels will be lower.

What are healthy versus unhealthy boundaries?

Boundaries are not about punishing, controlling or shutting people out when they’ve been ‘bad’. Boundaries are about establishing clarity on expectations and ensuring mutual respect for all parties so that everyone’s needs are met fairly.  Healthy boundaries are balanced, flexible and positive – they protect our physical and emotional well-being, reduce conflict, prevent long-lasting resentment and facilitate healthier and more positive relationships.  

Unhealthy boundaries lead to feelings of resentment and frustration – they involve giving too much of ourselves because we feel we have to please others or do what they want in order to avoid conflict and maintain the relationship.

Dealing with a difficult parent

Not all of us are lucky enough to have easy-going, pleasant parents. Some of us have parents who drive us crazy or who have damaging personality flaws. 

Establishing boundaries can be even more challenging with these kinds of parents, but all the more important. If your parent is excessively demanding, verbally abusive, manipulative or controlling you may require professional support from a therapist to help you set boundaries and protect your emotional and psychological wellbeing. Difficult parents like this will be especially resistant to new boundaries being set and can lash out, become hurtful or give you the silent treatment. This can stir up old wounds and make caring for them incredibly painful. Unfortunately, you can’t change your parent’s personality or stop them from being difficult, but you can change yourself and how you respond. 

7 tips to establishing and maintaining healthy boundaries

1: Work out what your boundaries are

The first important step is to figure out your limits and where your boundaries lie.  Ageing parents often need help with a range of things from fixing things in the house or assistance with tech, to organising their healthcare and driving them around. They can also become lonely and bored and want your company often or to talk to you several times a day. You need to work out how much time can you realistically commit to helping your parents each week without becoming overwhelmed, based on what else you have going on and your other priorities. You should also take time to observe and consider what requests or behaviours you are ok with, and which ones frustrate or annoy you. For example, are they calling or coming over too often? Do they not express gratitude for what you do for them? Do they rely on you more than another sibling? Do they criticise the way you do things? Are they asking you to do things they are still able to do for themselves?

2: Communicate your boundaries clearly and respectfully

Once you’ve established what you can realistically cope with, find a good time and place to speak calmly and openly with your parent or parents about what you can and cannot do for them, and how much time you can offer. If you position the boundaries from a positive perspective and emphasise how they will mutually benefit them, they will likely be less defensive and more willing to respect them. Try to consider their perspective and be empathetic to their situation. The more you listen and show understanding for their needs and fears, the better the conversation will go and the less chance of hurting their feelings.  At the same time, you may want to ask them about their boundaries. It can be easy to take over or treat our parents like children when they age which can also be troubling for them. Their boundaries are just as important as yours.

3: Practice saying ‘no’

Some of us are not very good at saying no, often because we want to please others, or avoid conflict or feelings of guilt, but it’s incredibly important. Just because your parent asks you to do something (however nicely), doesn’t mean you have to do it – even if you have the time or the will.  The more you do, the more you will be expected to do so. Sometimes it is important just to say ‘no’ for that reason alone.

And it’s not just your parents you need to practice saying no to.  Siblings can also become demanding or make unreasonable requests with regards to your ageing parents.  Saying ‘no’ doesn’t have to result in conflict or bad feeling – it depends how you do it.  You can still be polite and avoid being completely dismissive.  The best thing is to say ‘no, I can’t do that but here is what I can do instead’ and offer an alternative solution. For example, ‘No, I can’t do that now but I can help you out tomorrow/find someone to help’. There is usually more than one solution to meet their request without saying ‘yes’ immediately and compromising your own needs unless it truly is an emergency.

4: Stay firm, consistent and calm

If your parent fails to respect your boundaries, whether purposefully or not, it’s important to ensure you stay firm, calm and consistent and not to give up.  Even if your parent becomes upset or tries to make you feel guilty. An emotional or nasty reaction from an especially difficult parent does not mean your boundaries are wrong. This is part of the process.  Don’t take it personally, remain steadfast and calmly repeat yourself if you need to for as long as you need to.

Staying consistent can also be difficult if you are not comfortable with feelings of guilt – which you will undoubtably feel. Guilt is normal and unavoidable but you just need to acknowledge it and let it pass. It shouldn’t stop you from staying firm and saying no when you need to. Guilt won’t kill you, but burnout might!

5: Establish a routine

Laying out clear times when you are available to support or spend time your parent, and when you need to focus on other things, can be very helpful.  It not only gives you more clarity and a sense of control, but it means your parents know exactly where they stand. If they know when you are and aren’t free to see them or take their calls, they don’t need to worry about whether they are disturbing you.  For example, failing memories sometimes mean ageing parents immediately pick up the phone to us when they think of something they need to ask, even if we are at work and it can wait. Establishing a set time when you speak each day that suits both you and your parents, and asking your parent to write down their questions when they arise to bring up on the call, can be a good solution to this.  It’s also a good idea to be intentional about scheduling in quality time with your parents to do activities you will both really enjoy, beyond just the usual care and support. Don’t just pop in when you have free time. Knowing they have something nice planned with you and that you want to spend time with them will make them feel respected, loved and reassured.

6: Involve friends and family, and don’t be afraid to seek outside support

Involve friends and family to help you set and maintain your boundaries if you need to.  Ask them for advice. You shouldn’t have to manage your parent’s needs all by yourself. If you have siblings, it’s important that you involve them and share the load.  For example, you can split the roles so that one of you helps your parent with financial and legal issues, another with tech, and another with health and medical appointments. It may be worth considering getting a part-time carer, or a housecleaner if they don’t already have one. If you have a particularly difficult parent, or really struggle to set boundaries, consider getting yourself a therapist or specialist mental health counsellor.  Nowadays, it is easier and cheaper to seek help from a therapist and fit it into your schedule with video calling and companies like BetterHelp making therapy more accessible.

7: Finally…try to understand and accept your parents as they are

It is thankless to try too hard to change our parents when they reach old age.  People get stuck in their ways and old habits die hard. Even if we have a very good relationship with our parents, they can still get on our nerves especially when we start caring for them and life gets more complicated and stressful. They may have certain behaviours and opinions that you find incredibly irritating or even offensive. But it’s important to remember that they had a different upbringing from you and are from a different generation. We can’t expect them to think and be like us. We have to try to understand their background, where they came from and how they were brought up.  In the end, we have to learn to accept them as they are, show compassion and try to rise above it.

In summary

Establishing boundaries when caring for ageing parents is a vital yet often challenging aspect of maintaining a healthy relationship while managing their increasing needs. Recognising your limits and clearly communicating them to your parents, while respecting their perspective, can significantly reduce stress and resentment. Healthy boundaries protect both your well-being and theirs, fostering a more positive and fulfilling dynamic. Remember, it’s okay to say ‘no’ and seek support from friends, family, or professionals when needed. By embracing these strategies, you can ensure a more balanced and mutually beneficial care routine, preserving your own mental and physical health while enhancing the quality of time spent with your parents.

Common questions

  • What should I do if my parent consistently disregards the boundaries I’ve set?

Setting boundaries with ageing parents can be challenging, especially when they repeatedly cross those limits. If this occurs, it’s essential to stay firm, consistent, and calm in reiterating those boundaries. Remain empathetic but assertive in your communication, and if needed, seek support from a therapist or counselor to navigate such challenging dynamics.

  • What if my siblings aren’t contributing equally to our parent’s care, affecting the boundaries I’ve established?

Unequal participation from siblings in caring for ageing parents is a common issue. If you find yourself carrying a disproportionate load, try to have an open conversation with your siblings about redistributing responsibilities equitably. Clearly communicate your boundaries and seek compromises or solutions that are fair to all involved. In cases of extreme disparity, seeking mediation or professional advice might be necessary.

  • How can I balance my own life and responsibilities with the care needed by my ageing parents?

Balancing your personal life and caregiving responsibilities can be overwhelming. Start by clearly identifying the time (and times) you can realistically allocate to caring for your parents without compromising your own well-being. Establish a schedule, involve other family members or support networks, and don’t hesitate to seek outside help if required, such as professional caregivers or therapists. Prioritising self-care is crucial to effectively care for your parents and avoid carer burnout.