You’re a family caregiver if you help out with everyday needs for a loved one — like an aging parent or a family member with a chronic condition like Alzheimer’s or multiple sclerosis (MS).
In 2015, the Family Caregiving Alliance reported there were about 34.2 million people in the United States providing unpaid care to an older adult.
Many people find family caregiving very rewarding, but it can also be a tough job.
Household activities alone take caregivers an average of 85 hours a month. And helping your loved one with self-care and mobility can take an average of 253 hours each month — equivalent to almost two full-time jobs, according to
Maintaining your own health and making time for yourself can be difficult when you’re a family caregiver, but it’s crucial to avoiding burnout. When your needs are met, you can be at your best for the ones you love.
Meeting your needs requires setting clear boundaries with the people in your life, which might mean saying no sometimes.
Here are nine ways to set boundaries when you’re a family caregiver, so you can get the self-care you need.
When your loved one needs help, leaving them can be very hard, even if you need to take a break. Be kind to yourself. It’s understandable if you have complicated feelings like guilt, helplessness, resentment, or grief.
No matter how much you do for your loved one, it can be hard to let go of the feeling that you could be doing more. And taking care of your own needs — like going out for coffee with a friend — can feel selfish.
The Family Caregiver Alliance recommends coping with guilt by reframing the situation. The truth is that no one can be perfect all the time, including you. You can’t be there every moment of the day or be in a good mood for your loved one at all times.
Instead of telling yourself you should be doing something, try telling yourself you regret it isn’t possible.
Like this: “I regret that I can’t take her to every appointment,” instead of “I should be taking her to every appointment.”
Before you can set clear boundaries, you need to know what they are.
You’ll need to set boundaries to defend the following needs:
- adequate rest
- enough sleep
- nourishing food
- social support
- personal care
If you don’t meet these for yourself, your health can be negatively impacted, and after a while, you may not be able to provide the level of care your loved one needs.
It may help to set aside blocks of time in your caregiving schedule just for you.
Once you’ve clearly defined the blocks of time you need for yourself, tell the person you’re caring for, other family members, doctors, and other people in your life that you won’t be available during those times.
You’ll also need to insist on maintaining your boundaries when something or someone challenges them.
Kind, assertive language can help you stick to your limits in a way you can feel good about.
Try using “I” statements, like: “I need some personal time, and I won’t be taking you to the appointment tomorrow, but someone else will be here to help.”
A hobby — whether old or new — can bring you a sense of personal fulfillment outside of your job as a caregiver. No matter what the activity, it can be a rewarding challenge.
And when it comes to boundaries, a hobby that happens at a set time — like a weekly pottery class — can help motivate you to set aside a designated block of time just for you.
Setting your caregiving hours and breaks on a calendar for all to see helps set everyone’s expectations about when you will and won’t be available.
Having your breaks in writing will help you stick to the plan.
As a caregiver, you’re essential for helping your loved one with tasks they can no longer do themselves.
But they may still be capable of doing many things independently, which can help them feel a sense of dignity, control, and enjoyment.
Before you jump in to assist, ask yourself: “Do they really need me?” Give them space to do things independently unless you observe that they need help.
Having them perform some everyday tasks can give you more freedom to take time for yourself.
Assistive technologies can help them be more independent, too. These may include:
- shower seats and grab bars
- toilet raisers
- jar openers
- reaching tools
- pill organizers and medication alarms
- canes and walkers
- voice-to-text features on their mobile or tablet
- intercom systems
What kinds of unpredictable events might happen? How could they be managed when you’re not there?
It can be easy to fall into a routine of canceling your plans or not making them because your loved one has unexpected needs.
Think ahead about what you can do now to ensure your loved one is cared for when you aren’t there.
Here are some ideas:
- Plan to order groceries or have pharmacy items delivered when you don’t have time to shop for them. You can download an ordering app and have it ready to go when you need it.
- Connect with ride services to help get your loved one to their appointments.
- Have one or two meal options on hand for your loved one when you aren’t available to cook. You might stock their freezer with prepared meals, order their favorite takeout, or ask another loved one to help cook for them.
- Connect with one or two other people who can fill in for you as needed. They could be family members or a caregiver service. Train them ahead of time to give specialized medical care your loved one might need, such as injections.
- Set up a personal emergency response system so your loved one can call for help in an emergency.
Having backup plans like these can help you leave when you’ve planned to.
Organizations like the Caregiver Action Network and the Family Caregiver Alliance provide resources for people who provide unpaid work caring for loved ones at home, including in-depth educational videos on specific caregiving topics.
They also provide social support, with forums for family caregivers to ask and answer questions and support one another.
When you’re setting boundaries, these resources may help.
You’re not alone. Talking with someone in the same boat can be a great relief.
You can share advice and timesaving ideas and ask them how they set and hold boundaries in their own caregiving.
When a trusted friend or family member offers to help, take them up on it! And ideally, give them a specific job to do.
When someone offers to fully take over for you, give yourself the best chance possible to disconnect by training them on everything they need to know while you’re gone, so they won’t have to ask for your help.
You may need to share details like:
- a schedule
- how to give medication
- how to help with personal care
- food routines, preferences, and sensitivities
- locations of supplies around the home
Having someone who can fully take over the caregiving role when you’re away can give you the confidence to take time for yourself.
When you’re a family caregiver, your needs can fall to the bottom of your list. But they’re worth making space for — both for your long-term well-being and the benefit of the people around you.
In the long run, taking time for yourself will help you provide higher-quality care.