How to Say No to Your Elderly Parents

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For such a little word, “no” can be surprisingly hard to say, especially when you are telling a parent that you can’t do something for them. But what if learning how to say no could be just as good for your parent’s health as it is for yours? By Kosette Lambert.

When you think about saying “no” to your parent (or parents), the thought is likely to be followed by a feeling of guilt and a list of all the reasons why saying no is not a good idea. But saying no is not only good for your wellbeing as a carer, it may also help your parent maintain their independence and, ultimately, their physical and mental health.  

It’s all about positive self-perception, says Rachel Ambagtsheer, a research fellow and senior learning facilitator at Torrens University Australia, who studies frailty and healthy ageing. Ambagtsheer says that to your elderly parents Boundaries 42 Australian Carers Guide | AUTUMN 2023 while it is normal for our bodies to undergo physiological changes as we biologically age, frailty is not an inevitable end-point.  

“There’s a perception that ageing equals frailty, but that’s not the case for everyone,” she says. “The progression of frailty can actually be reversed or slowed with the right intervention.

“We also know that how older people view themselves as they age can have a real impact on both their mental and physical health. A positive self-perception of ageing has a protective effect against many of the negative consequences of getting older.”

A sense of independence and agency over one’s life are crucial factors in maintaining a positive self-perception. When we are too helpful and prematurely take on those activities our parents can still manage – i.e., we don’t say no enough – we deny them the opportunity to maintain some independence.

“While it’s tempting to step in and do things for our parents out of concern for their wellbeing, we may be depriving them of the right to assert their agency, should they wish to do so,” Ambagtsheer says. 

Wanting to step back so your parent can do more and knowing that this could be good for them is easy. Navigating how to say no without feeling guilty can be more difficult. Here are some ideas that might help you to learn how to say it politely and know what to say in those difficult conversations.  

Tips for setting boundaries 

Setting boundaries may feel uncomfortable at first, but the more committed you are to the process, the easier it becomes. Natasha Steen, a mental health clinician based in Adelaide, says it helps to remember that if something isn’t working well for you as a carer, it’s not going to be good for your parent, either.

“Continuing to do these tasks for your parent may make you resentful,” Steen says. “It can also reduce the number of small opportunities where your parent is still safe to exercise their independence.” How do you go about putting healthy boundaries in place? Here are five suggestions:

1. Make a time to talk  

Once you have decided to create boundaries, set a time to have a conversation with your parent about changing things. It will be tempting to put this off, but don’t – it will only make it harder.  

2. Prepare for a reaction  

Change is never easy, so you may get a negative response at first. Remember, you don’t need permission to make decisions about what is good for you, but in making those decisions you take on the responsibility to navigate towards a good outcome. 

3. Talk love first

Reinforce your love and care for your parent before saying no politely. “I love you, Mum, and I am happy to do things to help you out. I also want you to be doing the things that you’re able to do. How do you feel about us trying something a bit different?” 

4. Divide and conquer  

You can focus on creating healthy boundaries one at a time, or you may like to review everything your parent needs to get done. If this is the case, look for gaps between what needs to happen and what they are capable of doing themselves. Then decide which tasks you are willing and realistically able to take on and which tasks will be done by others, whether that be family or external service providers. Having an assessment done by someone who is not emotionally invested in the outcome can be helpful, especially if it is likely that you will be responsible for any tasks that your parent will no longer be doing. 

Don’t make assumptions or be too hasty in judging what your parent should and shouldn’t be doing Don’t make assumptions or be too hasty in judging what your parent should and shouldn’t be doing. Taking longer to do a task or not doing a task quite as well as they used to does not necessarily mean your parent shouldn’t be doing it anymore. An assistive device may be all that is needed to keep them independent. 

5. Reframe your thinking

Interdependence refers to the dependence of two or more people on each other. In a care context, interdependence gets us away from the binary of independence-dependence and recognises that we all have something to offer. In this way, care is seen not as a burden, but as an exchange – a twoway relationship. In an interdependent relationship with your parent, you might do all the laundry while they do all the folding. 

Learning how to say no takes time, effort and patience, so give yourself time to adjust. Steen says that setting boundaries in these circumstances can also be emotionally draining.

“It’s common to experience elements of grief or feelings of guilt that we want to do less or that we are breaking a promise. We can also worry that our parent will suffer because of our decision – this is an unhealthy and unjustified feeling.

“Getting your thoughts down on paper can be useful, as it helps to take away aspects that can be overly emotive or irrational and makes them easier to manage.”  

Setting boundaries in relationships is not set and forget, either, she advises. They should be revised as soon as you notice that they’re not serving you or your parent well.  

Putting no into practice

Once you’ve set your personal boundaries, you need to reinforce them. This is where learning how to say no without hurting someone’s feelings becomes important. 

1. Be clear what you want to say no to and why this boundary is important to you. Write it down. Be specific. If you can, talk to family members about your approach. 

2. Practice ways to say no, either on your own or with a trusted friend. Start with an “I” statement, followed by a question that invites your parent into the conversation and makes them feel empowered. “I know you feel comfortable asking me and it is hard for me to say no, but I’m not able to fit this into my week. How do you feel about trying this instead.” If an outright no is still too hard, practicing how to say no without saying no can be a good first step. Try something like, “Sorry, I can’t come and do the laundry right now. Maybe you could get it started and I’ll come by later and see how it’s going?” 

Have a go at ways of saying no when you and your parent are both calm, not in the heat of the moment. And remember, the worst thing that can happen is probably not as bad as you imagine. 

Saying no to a parent when they are asking for your help can be challenging. But resisting the urge to step in or stepping back from what your parent can safely do on their own may end up being better for both of you. Healthy boundaries in relationships can help reduce feelings of guilt, resentment and burn out.

SAM’S EXPERIENCE

Saying no has enabled Sam to fulfil her carer role without feeling like she’s on the battleground.

Sam and her husband moved in with her parents six years ago after her mum had a hip replacement. While Sam initially took on many of the daily tasks for her parents, this tapered off as her mum got back on her feet.

Then, in early 2022, Sam’s mum was hospitalised for two weeks. Sam has now taken over most of the household chores for her parents and provides intimate care for her mum.

After some trial and error, Sam found that approaching her intimate care responsibilities as though she’s in a paid caring role allows her to cope with the emotion of the situation and to be firmer with her mum than she might otherwise be. “Now when I say, ‘No, we need to do this now,’ Mum knows it’s a job that needs to be done. She doesn’t start arguing like she used to. We just get on and get it done together.”

PAULINE AND TRACEY’S EXPERIENCE

When Pauline and Tracey’s mum lost her driver’s licence, the family rallied to provide the support she needed to stay in her own home. While both sisters provide care for their mum, the way they’ve approached it has been very different.

Tracey always helps their mum with shopping or other errands when she is asked – however, she fits these activities around her own schedule. Pauline finds it hard to say no, so will stop whatever she is doing to respond to her mum’s requests.

Over time, Pauline’s availability has made her the go-to whenever her mum wants something done. Worn out and increasingly resentful, Pauline takes regular mini-breaks to recharge her batteries. The family has noticed that when Pauline is away, their mum gets on and does whatever she needs doing without any additional support. The family is questioning whether their mum still needs the support or if they’ve taught her to become dependent on it.

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