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Talking to Family When You Can No Longer Care for an Elderly Parent

By Danny SzlauderbachMay 13, 2021
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Every day, Linda Snyder goes to her mother’s house in rural Pennsylvania, gets her out of bed, gives her breakfast, and dresses her. Every night, Snyder returns to put her mother to bed. Once in a while, she’ll find her mother on the bathroom floor.

Sometimes, when Snyder arrives, her mother says, “Oh, it’s you again.” That lukewarm greeting doesn’t help an already stressful routine, says Snyder.

Snyder admits that being her mother’s primary caregiver has made her feel depressed, anxious, and guilty. She has five daughters who are beginning to have children of their own. She’s torn between caring for her elderly mother and being present as her family grows.

After years of round-the-clock worry, Snyder finally decided she’s had enough.

“I’m pretty much at the breaking point,” she says. “I can’t do this anymore.”

Being a primary caregiver for an aging loved one is a huge commitment. Caregiving may affect your finances, health, or other relationships — or it may just be too difficult emotionally or physically. If you need a change or feel you’re giving up your life to care for elderly parent, it doesn’t mean you’re being selfish or uncaring. Learn how to talk to your family when you can no longer care for an elderly parent and need to create a new caregiving arrangement.

How to tell family you’ve reached a breaking point in taking care of elderly parents

When you’ve decided that you can’t continue to be your parent’s primary caregiver, how do you break it to the family? And how do you manage your own feelings of sadness and guilt?

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“Other people don’t always like or understand our decisions,” says Steven Zarit, a professor in the human development and family studies department at Pennsylvania State University and a caregiver support group leader. “We all have limits on what we are able to do, and if we have done the best we can and can’t go on, we shouldn’t feel guilty.”

Here are a few steps to follow when discussing a change in caregiving arrangements with your family.

1. Reframe your decision

It’s normal to feel guilty when you decide to stop being a caregiver for a loved one, but there are other ways to view this change.

“Rather than an either-or decision, I encourage adult children to think of it as, ‘I’ve been providing care in one way, and now I need to provide it in another way.’ It doesn’t mean you have to stop,” says Sara Honn Qualls, Director of the Gerontology Center at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs.

Maybe your loved one requires additional care that you’re not trained to provide. If so, transitioning to memory care or an assisted living community may be the most caring thing you can do.

2. Consider how others will be affected

Your decision to stop taking care of elderly parents will probably bring change for your other family members, too. They may resent your decision and worry that they’ll now have to put more time and effort into caregiving.

Undoubtedly, there will be complex family dynamics. Past issues between siblings may resurface. And any kind of change is usually difficult for everyone at first.

When she holds family meetings, Qualls finds it effective to ask, “What is most important to you about your mother’s life from today until the day she dies?” This question can help people focus on the parent rather than siblings’ perceived shortcomings or family history. It’s also an opportunity to brainstorm and collaborate.

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3. Communicate with care and compassion

When you explain that something needs to change, it’s helpful to use inclusive language. Make it clear to siblings that you’re not telling them what to do or forcing them into something they don’t want to do. The following phrases can help:

  • “Here are my thoughts”
  • “I could use your help figuring out the next steps”
  • “We’re in this together”
  • “Do you have any other ideas?”

Sometimes the discussion can get heated. But rather than argue, tell family members you’ve done the best you can, and really believe it. If there’s negative feedback, stay calm.

You might say, “Maybe I could’ve done things differently, but I’ve truly reached the end of the line and need some help.” If they seem willing, tell them they’re welcome to take over caregiving responsibilities.

For some families, it makes sense to find a neutral, third party with clinical training to manage or attend the meeting. Your local Area Agency on Aging may be able to recommend a geriatric care manager, an elder mediator, or a family therapist to help facilitate your discussion.

4. Remember to acknowledge your feelings

Do you think others are judging you for not being a good enough daughter or sibling, or for abandoning the original caregiving plan? Do you believe that yourself? Do you feel someone else could have done better? Are others constantly criticizing your caregiving decisions?

If so, try to have self-compassion and be kind to yourself. Feeling exhausted, inadequate, or resentful is often what happens when caregivers set boundaries or change the rules.

Remember that others have been in your situation before, and there are ways to talk to them. Consider joining an in-person or online caregiver support group.

What’s the next step?

Once you’ve discussed your desire for a caregiving change, you may decide as a family that your aging loved one needs more help than you or your siblings can provide.

A Place for Mom can help you learn more about caregiving alternatives, such as assisted living, care homes, and memory care.

Connect with a Senior Living Advisor to get started. Our Senior Living Advisors can help assess your family’s specific situation, send you information about different senior living options, and connect you with communities in your area — all at no cost to you.

Danny Szlauderbach

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