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

Reviewed by Dr Sarah Gunn

As your parents age and their care needs start to increase, it’s important to be aware of and set boundaries. This is not only to preserve your own sanity and wellbeing, but to ensure they also maintain some independence and hopefully establish healthy, sustainable coping mechanisms themselves. Without considering and setting boundaries, we can quickly become frustrated and resentful of 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. This might include your past and current relationship with them, where you live, what you do for a living and what you have going on in your life (including other people you might be supporting – not forgetting yourself!). 

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It is not uncommon for people caring for their parents to stretch themselves very thin. People can start to neglect their own health, reduce or cease exercising, and feel low and burnt out. 

Even if you love your parents deeply and feel indebted to them, it’s 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 others in your life. 

Setting healthy boundaries is not always easy or pleasant, especially if your relationship with your parent(s) is tricky or if 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 and your parents spend together will be more meaningful and enjoyable, and everyone’s stress levels will hopefully be lower.

Read on to understand more about healthy boundaries, and some tips on how to establish and maintain them.

What are healthy versus unhealthy boundaries?

Boundaries are not about punishing, controlling or shutting people out. Rather, they are intended to be positive: boundaries are about establishing clarity of expectations and ensuring mutual respect for all parties, so that everyone’s needs are met as fairly as possible. 

Healthy boundaries are balanced, flexible and positive – they protect our physical and emotional wellbeing, reduce conflict, prevent long-lasting resentment, and facilitate healthier and more positive relationships.  

Unhealthy boundaries, on the other hand, can lead to feelings of resentment and frustration. We might find that we give too much of ourselves because we feel we have to please others, or we might do what they want in order to avoid conflict and maintain the relationship. Over time, this means that our own needs become neglected.

Dealing with a “difficult relationships”

Not all of us are lucky enough to have easy-going, pleasant relationships with our parents.

Some of us have parents who drive us crazy, or with whom we have serious clashes of personality. In some cases, parents can be actively demanding, verbally abusive, manipulative or controlling.

If this sounds familiar, you need to be even more focused on protecting yourself and maintaining your boundaries. You may wish to seek professional support from a therapist to help you set new boundaries or re-establish old ones, and protect your emotional and psychological wellbeing.

“Difficult” parents like this may 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 a parent’s personality or directly stop them from behaving this way, but you can change yourself and how you respond – which may help to change your interactions with your parent, even if it doesn’t “fix” some of the underlying difficulties. 

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 (or just keen to see you!), and may 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 parent(s) each week without becoming overwhelmed, based on what else you have going on and your other priorities.

You should also take time to consider what requests or behaviours you are ok with, and which ones are asking too much or that you want to decline (which you do have the right to do).

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?

Examining what is putting pressure on you, and considering what you’re willing and able to accept, is an important way to protect your wellbeing.

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 this will mutually benefit all of you, 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 and they may well have thoughts of their own about things that feel tricky.

3: Practice saying ‘no’

Many of us are not very good at saying no, often because we want to please others, or avoid conflict or feelings of guilt. But the ability to give a firm “no” where needed is 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.

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.

The best thing is to politely 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. And sometimes it really is just a definite “no”, and that’s ok too! Saying “no” when you need to will serve you well across many areas of your life.

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 if you feel guilty.

An emotional or nasty reaction does not mean your boundaries are wrong, and it can be part of the process of establishing what is acceptable to you. Try not to take it personally and, like a broken record, continue to repeat your position calmly and politely without budging.

Staying consistent can also be difficult if you are not comfortable with feelings of guilt – which you may well feel. Guilt is normal when trying to re-establish boundaries, but try 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 with 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 and can be confident of getting hold of you at certain agreed times, which reduces anxiety.

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 if you can and share the load. 

For example, you can split the roles so that one of you helps your parent(s) 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 this is financially feasible for you or them.

If you have a particularly difficult relationship with a parent, or really struggle to set boundaries, you could likewise, if possible, consider getting yourself a therapist or specialist mental health counsellor (either privately, or by speaking with your GP). Nowadays, it has become 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, it can still be difficult when we start caring for them and life gets more complicated and stressful.

They may have certain behaviours and opinions that you find 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.

This is especially the case if your parent has a diagnosis of dementia. One of the symptoms can be around becoming “disinhibited” – they might not be able to stop themselves from saying things that they might not have said in the past.  Difficult as it can be, trying to be understanding can be essential.

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 wellbeing 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 lines. 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 counsellor to navigate 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 (when and how much) you can realistically allocate to caring for your parents without compromising your own wellbeing. Establish a schedule, see if you can involve other family members or support networks, and aim to seek outside help if required, such as professional caregivers or therapists (through the NHS or private sources). Prioritising self-care is crucial to effectively care for your parents and avoid carer burnout.

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