7. Boundaries and Aging Parents

Boundaries and Aging Parents

How can we navigate aging parents and the roles we want to play in their care? In this interview, Carol talks through the decisions she is facing regarding her parents and the care they need. Mary helps her work through what kind of care she is willing and not willing to provide.

Carol realizes it is ok for her to allow herself to feel sad that things aren’t how they used to be. Listen to how Carol accepts that it is ok for her not to be strong all the time. How will she set these boundaries for herself, while still maintaining her parents own boundaries and agency?

Main Episode Takeaways

  • Our boundaries are only for us
  • Learn about role clarification
  • Everyone has their agency and their own boundaries
  • It’s ok to be disappointed that things aren’t how they used to be
  • How to have those hard conversations

Want to learn more about boundaries?

– Boundaries IQ quiz HERE
-Take my Boundaries 101 Course
– Do you want to overcome your hurdles of people pleasing? Book a free call with Mary!


Mary: All right, I’m talking with Carol today about boundaries. Hi Carol. Thanks for visiting with me. 

Carol: Hi. Hi Mary. Thank you for having me. 

Mary: Can you tell us a little bit about yourself? 

Carol: Yeah, sure. So we met each other through Polka dot Powerhouse, which is super fun. And we are in a small group together because we’re in the diamond level, which has been wonderful. And so I live in New Hampshire. And I live with my one boy now because one of them left. Which is exciting. And let’s see. So for work, I’ll just give you, like a one liner, I help entrepreneurs go from scattered and stuck to focused and confident. So like you, I am a coach and like all coaches, we need other coaches to support us in the things that come up for us in life. So I’m really excited to be interviewed by you today. 

Mary: Awesome. Well, let’s talk about boundaries. What is the hardest thing for you about boundaries right now? 

Carol: Yeah. So this is something that isn’t new, but it really became apparent this last weekend right after Thanksgiving that I’m really gonna have to start buckling in and helping my parents. And when I think about what’s the hardest part that’s like, how long do you have? You know what I mean? But I would say that it can be summed up, this is very, very intimate and I wanna just share it anyway, because that’s just the way I am. 

So I was there with them. They’re only about a hundred miles south of me. I don’t see them that much though, relative to that. And I spent, you know, Thursday afternoon, evening, and Friday till about 1:30, 2 PM with them. And then I was kind of out all day. So I really didn’t get home and unpacked and unwound the way I would’ve liked. That night, friday night I woke up early, early in the morning, like, I don’t know, four, five in the morning and I had a nightmare. And when you say what’s the hardest part? This is what I’m getting to because I think that, you know, our dreams are the biggest tellers, you know, and I had this nightmare that I was crying. I was crying like a baby. Like, where you cry, cry and cry until there’s nothing left and you’re not holding anything back. And just kind of waiting for somebody to pick me up and save me.

And yeah. And then, I had this other thing happening. There was this person who was being super mean to me, big person like with a big head way up high. And I was pushing the person away and everything. And all of a sudden, towards the end of the dream, this is when I woke up, the person took off their head and it wasn’t that person at all, it was this other person. And I’m not gonna say the name of this person, but it’s somebody that I really like and trust, not my parents. It’s a, a work related thing. And I was like, oh, but I trusted you. And I woke up and I was reflecting on that dream and I was like, what was that all about?

And the first part of the dream being really scared. I really think that the hardest part is that while I know I’m not gonna have my parents forever, and I don’t expect them to be around forever, and I’m okay with the transition, at least in theory. I think that there’s a really deep part of me that is losing my bedrock. And that is the hardest part. 

Mary: The foundation. 

Carol: The foundation, but it goes beyond that. It goes down into bedrock, like right down into the middle of the earth, because the man that has always been my bedrock is losing his mind. And as much as I’ve known that for a while, there’s some things that just shake your inner core. And there you go. 

Mary: Yes. 

Carol: So that is the hardest part. 

Mary: Yeah, and I can relate to you as I also have noticed kind of parents aging in the last few years and how I feel about that, you know? And so let’s talk a little bit about the boundaries around it. Have you been able to decide like how you want to show up around it, what you’re willing to do, what you’re not willing to do, or can I help you with that?

Carol: You can so help me with that because I have been kind of playing around with it for a while. And I think that’s the next hardest part is to, I was taking a walk with this man I’m dating. And he was like, well, how was your weekend and everything. And I had to just explain, I said, well I’m in denial right now. I said, I’m in denial and anger and fear right now. And I know that I am, and I know that I’ll get through it, but right now, I said to him, I’m like, really whiny pants about this because I don’t want to take care of them.

And I don’t, so what I have done, like a proactive thing is I contacted my sister where there’s only two siblings and we usually work pretty well together on things. So that’s the good news. And I’m helping her understand that while her in-laws are the same age, they are not the same mentally. And as we had said before this meeting, it’s like Covid has not done them any favors. So he’s losing his memory and so what do I do about it? Because really the question is how do you wanna show up? So I’m in the, I’m in the midst of deciding about that. 

So one of the things I think and we’re trying to figure out how we bring my cousin in because my cousin is like close to them geographically and also just that she goes over like Friday nights and has like dinner and watches a movie. So like she’s the right person to have there, but I wanted to have a conversation with her, like person to person. Like, we need to up level this and start paying you like, right? Because that is who I see as the right answer, but I need, we need her buy-in or, or to come up with a plan before I can really, I guess, adequately answer how do I wanna show up because how the person on the ground is gonna show up relates back to how I’m gonna show up. I know I won’t be the person on the ground, but I know somebody has to be the person on the ground. 

Mary: Okay, so let’s do this. I’m gonna draw a T Chart kind of one line down the middle of the page, one line at the top, and yeah, the left side will be what is Carol willing to do? What is Carol okay with? What’s Carol’s responsibility? What do you like? Which one of those is resonating? 

Carol: I think, I think what am I okay with is probably best. 

Mary: Okay. Yeah. What is Carol okay with? And the other side’s gonna be what is not okay.

Carol: Yeah. Okay. So I am okay with periodically answering emergency calls that I know are fine.

I am okay with deciding on a schedule for myself that I’m, that I’m okay with. I don’t know what that schedule is yet, but there’ll be some schedule that I determine that I’m okay with to periodically visit my parents, like in person and to decide how long I’m gonna be there. 

Mary: Okay, so regularly scheduled visits?

Carol: Yeah, like to just literally go down there because there’s so much that just will not get discussed on the phone. I’ve I’ve, discovered you have to be there. Okay. So I’m okay with that. I am okay with, you know, basically being support like, here or there they might need somebody to make an appointment for them. So like my mom’s colonoscopy tomorrow, they couldn’t get ahold of the hospital, so I wound up just calling and making the appointment. Like, as long as it’s not all the time and I don’t know what all the time means, so that’s where it gets fuzzy and weird. But if I have to do that two or three times a year, like whatever, that’s fine. Because I know what I don’t want. 

Mary: Yes. So let’s talk about what you don’t want. 

Carol: Right. So what I don’t want is to be like my friend Linda, who she’s close, she’s the one that gets called if there’s any problem. Like, so she works, and then if her mother falls she has to, she has to be there. She’s sort of like firsthand, like the first mate of it and I don’t wanna be that. Like, I want my cousin Donna, or somebody else to be ideally Donna, to be that person because, you know, I don’t desire that to be how I live my life. I love them, and I would, in the end of the day, do whatever is needs to be done. But like on Friday I felt like I did my absolute best to remain calm, to be there in love. But yet there was this part of me that just felt, it was ugly. Like I felt this ugliness inside of me. 

Mary: What was the ugliness about? Tell me what it was. 

Carol: Just like I hated it. I hated being there. I hated, oh, and the other thing is like my son was there. He was so understanding and he did not make a fuss at all, which if they were at our house, he’s very difficult sometimes and that’s a whole nother dynamic. But I was quite grateful. But I think there was part of me that knew that he wasn’t really happy. So there was this part of me that was like, I wanted to leave, I wanted us to leave. I didn’t want it to take forever. I hated that I had to explain everything and go through everything. And then I think there’s some kind of like just grief in there for like losing, like he’s not totally gone, they’re not totally gone, but they’re enough gone, that it’s sad. And that’s the ugliness, like all that soup of just different stuff in there was like, I hated that I was sitting there, I was literally sitting there in my PJ’s until, I think it must have been at least it was 12:30 in the afternoon, not on purpose. Like just because I started out eating breakfast and I literally never left the breakfast table. And then it was like 1230 and I’m like, okay, I need to go get dressed . You know, like, I think I wanna do something for the day. 

So yeah. I don’t wanna be the one that has to push them all the time to do things. Like, for example, we went to start to look at hearing aids for my mom, because every single thing that’s new, it’s like my dad creates these things that get in the way. Like I’ll say we need to buy her a new cell phone, in the summer I said let’s buy a new cell phone. Okay, great. We’ll get something like a jitter bug. Okay, perfect. I looked it up online. I was about to hit the buy now button and he was like, oh, no, no, we need to go to Target, we need to do all these things. 

And like, there’s all this energy around like getting them to do like freaking literally anything. Like to buy a $50 cell phone, like it took six months. Like to me, that’s like a five minute question or maybe 15. I hate it. I hate it from the point of view of what I just told you. And I also just as a person, I just wanna make a decision and keep it going. I don’t wanna research it for months and years and forever. Even talking about this, can I, I hear myself just being so agitated. Like, I hate it. 

Mary: So what are you not okay with?

Carol: I’m not okay with being like their full-time caregiver. 

Mary: Okay. You’re not okay with full-time caregiving. Something about how you spend your time and energy in there. 

Carol: Yeah. 

Mary: What is it? 

Carol: I really just wanna live my life and accept and, and create like a puncture through my life where we have a relationship, but it doesn’t live in my space. 

Mary: So you wanna maintain your relationship with your parents but you do not want to do what? 

Carol: So like I say, I don’t wanna be their caregiver. I don’t wanna be the one that takes care of everything. I know, I know many people my age-ish that they’re like point person for everything, mom and dad, and that is not what I want. Another thing I really don’t want that I started making boundaries about, is that the old relationship I would have with them is they were helping me like I’m a single mom. They would come up and help, like if I had to go on a business trip, they would come and sit with my kids and like they would drive ’em around and like, they would be helpful and like my dad would go around and fix little things. 

And now that I own this house, like here’s a boundary; I tried to do like a little project and we did do a little project like this last spring, but I suddenly realized, I’m like, I do not want him staying at my house day in and day out because he would move right in and he would be like, okay, we’re gonna do the exhaust fan over your stove. And that could be a week, two weeks. And then they would be living here and then I’d have to figure out all the food and just all the confusion.

Like, I do not want them. And this is a really hard thing because my dad, like his whole sense of worth and purpose and who he is as a person is, I fix things. So for me to say like, I don’t want him to fix things. I might as well just dig his grave right now. So I come out with these little things that I think are like safe. Like can you put my smoke detectors in? Like that’s okay. I bought the smoke detectors. You can put them in or can you look at these batteries and figure out these flashlights? Like that’s safe. But no making holes in my house. 

Mary: So I heard you’re not okay with living together, you’re not okay with big house projects at your home. There’s still something around the amount of time we’re spending together. Is it, do you know what you’re okay with and not okay with about how much time you’re spending together? 

Carol: Two days is the most, two days. That is the most I can do.

Mary: Okay. So spend up to two days together. And how often? 

Carol: At most once a month. Ideally probably once every three months. So it can be a seasonal adjustment, like in the summer it’s gonna be more. 

Mary: Okay. So spend up to two days together every one to three months. 

Carol: One to three months. Yeah. 

Mary: Perfect. That sounds good. And that would be a regularly scheduled visit?

Carol: Probably scheduled. 

Mary: Okay. Cool. So let’s talk a little bit about the person on the ground. Maybe it’s your cousin Donna, maybe it’s someone else. Let’s decide a little bit more around that. So what’s the goal? So your cousin Donna, she goes once a week? 

Carol: Yeah, pretty much once a week on Fridays. My mom makes her dinner. They have fish on Fridays and then they watch a movie and have an ice cream cone. And that’s what they do. And she helps them a little bit. It’s so cute. 

Mary: I love it.

Carol: And she will oftentimes help them with sort of like little random things on the computer, whatever it is they need to get done. And in like fashion he’ll do the same for her again if there’s some little thing on her home or her car that she needs fixed, he’ll do that. So they have a lovely relationship. So ideally it’s her and they love each other. Like they enjoy being with each other. So to me it’s a win-win. If Donna is a no. Now it’s like, well, crap. Now what? 

Mary: Okay, so what’s the question for Donna? Is she a yes or no for what? 

Carol: Yeah, it’s to take a more active role in their care. Primarily, I think regarding medical. So like, I think we’re at the place where they don’t even know to ask, they’re not really capable of, certainly checking in remotely. We know that. But also too, when they’re at the appointment, like Susan and I, my sister and I would be talking about like maybe we could call in because she’s in DC as so she’s further away than me, but like maybe we could like call in and because they’re really not capable of pulling in and assimilating the information that they’re given or questions or whatever it is. Or being very good at self advocating. So it’s everything from making the appointments, at times checking in if we need to, and more and more that’s a requirement, you know?

But really it’s boiling down to I would love if Donna would be able to literally attend the actual doctor’s appointments, and that could be a little bit of a bugaboo because as much as they get along, I’ve found out that they don’t share things like medical information. So that could be a problem. I don’t know. But it could be. 

Mary: So your boundaries are you willing or not willing to go to these medical appointments? 

Carol: No, I don’t wanna go. I, I’ll call in, but I definitely do not want, cause that’s a whole day. 

Mary: Okay. So you are willing to call in for medical appointments?

Carol: Yeah. I mean, if it was life or death I’d show up, but that could eat away in my life really quickly. 

Mary: Yeah. Okay. Call in for medical appointments, show up if life or death?

If you 

Carol: called me today right now and there was emergency, I’d be like, I gotta go and I’d just get car and drive. 

Mary: Yes. Yeah. Okay. So you’d show up if there was an emergency or a life or death situation? 

Carol: Absolutely. 

Mary: So what’s not okay for you is attending regular medical appointments in person. 

Carol: Yeah. It’s too much. 

Mary: Okay. And for your cousin, Donna, how’s your communication been so far about kind of roles? 

Carol: Well, I have brought it up like a little bit kind of here or there, but nobody’s ever kinda like, taking the bait. Like she emailed me probably two or three months ago on a different topic and I said, great, and by the way, we really should talk sometime about my mom and dad and you taking in a more active role and I never got a response. So I think that it’s the elephant in the room and I’m trying right now, so I actually last night, sent a text after I talked to my sister and said, Hey, are you gonna be around on the 26th, the day after Christmas? Can we meet up like together? And she’s not gonna be around, of course.

And so we’re trying to nail down a day on the Christmas week. It may have to be remote because of schedules, but my plan is sometime that week, while my sister is not in Washington DC she’s in New England here, that we come up with some kind of game plan and involve Donna. It may just be conference call or whatever, FaceTime, whatever it is.

Mary: So you are okay with planning, meeting, initiating the plans. 

Carol: Yep. That’s fine. I’d rather do that because I don’t wanna be stuck at the other side. 

Mary: Like you’re okay with coordinating the care, but not providing the care. 

Carol: Yep.

Mary: Awesome. That’s a good distinction. 

Carol: Mm yeah. Yeah, I’m fine with that.

Mary: And it’s probably within your strength set, right? 

Carol: Yeah, exactly. You love talking about boundaries. I love planning things. 

Mary: Coordinating, planning. That’s what you wanna do. I love it. So then what about conversations with mom and dad? How has that, has that communication been so far? 

Carol: So I haven’t come right out there and said, all right, here’s the thing. We need to keep you safe and we need to change stuff. I think that prior to that kind of conversation I wanted to talk to Donna because I knew that if I was gonna bring it up and said, oh, and by the way, since Donna is coming over here anyway, she’s gonna just uplevel things and as you know, she’s sort of struggling cleaning houses.

We thought we might take XYZ account and I’d position it in such a way that they realize that number one, they need and desire a home health aid. They probably don’t, but if it’s Donna and they’re like helping Donna and they’re like saving money, like I know all their values and the way they are in life and I’m pretty sure that if I got her buyin’ that I could sell it to them. 

Mary: Okay. So you have this idea that you wanna pitch to Donna and the idea that you also wanna pitch to your mom and dad. That sounds like you think would be a good solution. So what if Donna says, I don’t wanna be the caregiver?

Carol: Then we have to find somebody. 

Mary: Okay. What if mom and or dad says we don’t want a caregiver? 

Carol: Then we have to figure it out from there. I really don’t know. Yep. I don’t know. That’s where I haven’t thought that far ahead. 

Mary: Okay, so that’s the tricky part with aging parents, right? Because our boundaries are for us, it’s what we’re willing to participate in and what we’re not willing to participate in, right? And their boundaries are for them. So if they say, We’re not having a professional person in our house or we don’t wanna change the relationship we have with our cousin Donna to be more of a caregiver, or if they even say, we don’t want you coming to our medical appointments or calling our doctors. Then what do we do? We have to respect their agency to make their own decisions as long as they are able to make their own decisions.

Right? There’s a whole legal process if they’re not but it is important for us just as we’re learning boundaries and thinking about boundaries, to remember that our boundaries are for us. So, Carol, you get to decide what you’re willing to do and what you’re not willing to do.

Carol: Yeah. I like that. I’m writing that down. Our boundaries are for us. That’s a really great one. 

Mary: So I can definitely relate, my parents are 76 and 81 and they’re in pretty good health. And they actually just got off a long cruise and so I’m really excited about that. But they get to make their own choices. As long as they’re able, they get to make their own choices. All of us do, and that’s kind of one of the key principles of boundaries is about agency. Like I get to decide what’s okay for me, and you get to decide what’s okay for you. 

But I love that we’ve gotten some really good clarity around you’re willing to help make doctor’s appointments, you’re willing to call in for medical appointments, you’re willing to show up if it’s an emergency, you’re willing to a regularly scheduled visit, up to two days, to every one to three months.

Carol: I love how you helped me figure that out. That was awesome. 

Mary: Yeah. And you’re willing to have the role of the coordinator, which is a really important role to have. There’s still something I don’t know, that we’ve quite gathered, like what was the frustration in your most recent visit? It was taking too long? It was too much energy? It was longer than you had anticipated? 

Carol: Yeah, it was all those things. I think that you know, really it’s a combination of the dream and that really subconscious obviously fears, thoughts, I don’t know whether it’s abandonment or whatever it is. Like the idea that, you know, my rock, my protector is no longer there, you know so there’s that. But just the knowledge that there’s an undercurrent that I know my son did not wanna be there.

 But he was totally fine and never said anything about that. But I know, I know him so there was some undercurrent there. There was a little bit of a surprise because what I thought was gonna be a check-in, like I was gonna have, I was gonna do the online check-in. Which in and of itself didn’t really work out, but I did not realize that I was going to have to go through line by line, day by day, piece by piece, how to help my mom and how to set all this up. So all these things together and then on top of it, just the old way it used to be like, I used to go there and they’re right near Boston, and I’d be like, have a meal with them, and then I’d run out with my friends and go do things and that, that’s not how it is.

So all those combination of things, but like going back to the check in versus what I had to do. It’s like Mary, if I wasn’t there, I don’t know if my mom could have had this colonoscopy because my dad tried to go through the paperwork and found frustration in it and said, I’ll have to call them and he is not very good with time and he would’ve had to be on the phone with them on that Friday for their 72 hour prep to begining time so that they could actually begin it.

And so, I don’t know what would’ve happened. Maybe he would’ve sat down on Monday. Mm-hmm. , and by then it’s too late. Because like 72 hours ahead, you’re not supposed to like have any seeds and there’s the things, you know, I don’t even know if they would’ve been able to have the appointment.

Mary: So what you are willing to do is, to coordinate the care. I think that that’s kind of where we’re landing, but what you’re not willing to do is to maybe spend longer than you anticipated, or maybe there’s something around managing your expectations, like maybe it’s not okay for you to expect things to be the same as they were before.

Carol: And I fully recognize that I’m in that denial. I told you that. And I’m just choosing to be okay because I know I have to go through this stuff so that I can move through and be the daughter that I ultimately wanna be. I’m not gonna be in denial of my feelings. 

Mary: Sure.

Carol: You know? I feel the way I feel and I’m ashamed about it, but I don’t wanna feel this way forever. 

Mary: So it’s okay for you to have whatever feelings come up to experience whatever feelings come up, to recognize that you’re disappointed when things are different than they used to be. I mean, I think that is part of the boundary. That’s what’s okay for you. 

Carol: So I guess I’d be okay with feelings. Confused feelings and sad feelings. 

Mary: Yeah. Mixed feelings. Complicated feelings. All the feelings. 

Carol: All the feelings. So I’m okay with that. 

Mary: And then the expectation piece, it’s okay to be disappointed if things aren’t like they used to. Or if your expectations are not being met or it’s okay for you to change your mind about some of this stuff in the future as things change. 

Carol: Yeah, absolutely. So what I foresee myself is working with, I have a positive psychology coach and I’m pretty sure I’m gonna bring this up with her because she’s been good with me and some other family things about asking me to look at things in a slightly different perspective so that it diffuses some of this angst. So I think that she’ll be real helpful with that.

Yeah. But I’m just gonna choose to be okay with not necessarily needing or wanting to step into that immediately. Like for whatever reason, I’m in love with my whiny pants-ness. Like I just wanna be angry for a little bit longer and frustrated and pissed off. And then there’ll be a moment where I’m done. But right now I wanna be like my little girl dream, like just kind of crying my eyes out and I will know when I’m done. I’ll know when I’m done.

Mary: I love that. Give yourself permission to be a crying little girl for a while. 

Carol: Yeah, that’s kinda how I feel. You know, cuz here’s the thing, Mary, is I’ve had to be so fricking strong for so long. I’m the first born, I’ve always had to take care of everything. And I don’t want to. I can and I will, but right now I just wanna be pissed. 

Mary: Yeah. And honor that. 

Carol: It’s exhausting to be strong all the time.

Mary: It is. Maybe that’s on the what’s not okay. Or yeah, the expectation to be strong all the time. That’s not okay for anybody. 

Carol: Oh, I know, and I know I do it to myself. I fully recognize that, but just by saying that out loud, it gives me permission. Even more permission.

Mary: Or like exhaust yourself or judge yourself. Right? All of those things. 

Carol: Yeah, I think that’s what it is. I’m tired of being strong all the time, or you know, I need to give myself more permission to not be strong all the time. 

Mary: Yes. And it sounds like you’re willing to come to the table and collaborate and good ideas, problem solving, but you don’t wanna have to be the one that’s responsible for fixing it.

Carol: Yeah. No, I’d rather just say, here are some ideas. What are we gonna do? And kind of bat ’em around. Yeah. That’s what I’d rather do. 

Mary: Awesome. Awesome. Okay. Anything else that we haven’t discussed yet around boundaries with your parents?

Carol: Well, I think this has been lovely. I almost burst into tears a few minutes ago, so you did a great job. 

Mary: That’s that’s how I know I’ve, I’ve earned my money for the day is if someone cries. Just kidding. 

Carol: No I hear that. I am with you all day long. 

Mary: Okay. Well, what questions do you have for me?

Carol: Unfortunately, I’m drawing a blank. I can’t really think of anything right now. I just wanted to say thank you cause that was, I feel like that was super helpful. 

Mary: Well, tell me what was most helpful about this? 

Carol: It was most helpful, like you really were good at helping me recognize that I’m very good at coordinating the care and that that was a strength and something I was comfortable with and valued. Like that was like, wow, okay. So that’s, yeah, I can do that. Like, that felt good. Yeah. 

Mary: That role clarification?

Carol: Very good right there. And then the other one that was really good was when I heard myself say, I just wanna be that little kid in my dream. That’s what I really want. I just wanna have permission to just cry for a while. 

Mary: Yeah. Awesome. You got this. 

Carol: Yeah. Thanks so much. I appreciate it. 

Mary: Your parents are lucky to have you. 

Carol: Thank you so much. You know, it was really nice that my son, my 15 year old son came over to me at one point and goes, you’re such a good daughter.

Mary: Oh, he did? I love that. I love that.

Carol: Because I hope I’m not gonna have to do that. I’m like, well, you probably will.

Mary: Awesome. Awesome. Well, thank you so much, Carol. I really appreciate talking about boundaries with you. 

Carol: Thank you. 

Right. I’ll see you later.