Updated: Dec 3, 2020
“Mom, I’m sorry. I was only trying to help.”
Apologies are always good, especially when you don’t realize you have crossed an invisible line. And, you may have crossed a few since your parents moved in with you during the pandemic. Today, I’d like to talk about these invisible lines and how to make them more visible. Namely, setting some good, ol’ fashioned boundaries.
Seniors want the choice to ask for help. You may think you’re doing your parents a huge favor by cooking for them, doing their laundry, and making their beds, but you may also be causing them to feel a bit worthless. Your parents don’t want to feel like a burden or lose their dignity. Plus, they may not want you to see their dirty laundry (both mental and physical). You were a teenager once. So, how do you set these boundaries without seeming harsh or uncaring?
Communicate, Communicate, Communicate
Communication is key! It’s important to have a positive conversation about how things work in your house on a daily basis. After all, everyday living is very different from when they visit at the holidays.
Do this soon after (or even before) your parents move in. And if they’ve already settled in, and you’ve already crossed a few of those invisible lines, it still isn’t too late. Sit down with a cup of coffee or tea and chat. Let them know you want to help, but that you don’t want to cross any boundaries, and you feel it’s good to find out what those boundaries are.
1. Be respectful. It may be hard for your parents to have to move in with you during this time, and they may already be feeling a little “less than.” It’s especially hard for your tough-as-nails Dad or your I-can-do-anything Mom to accept that this is what’s best right now. Treating them like the adults they are is a great way to show your love and respect.
2. Find out how you can be helpful. Ask what “chores” they would prefer to do themselves and what you can do because “you’re doing them anyway.” Maybe Mom prefers to do her laundry because she sometimes has accidents and doesn’t want you to see that. Or maybe Dad prefers to make his bed because no one can make it just the way he likes it. Unless your parents are physically-challenged, know that there are things they’ve been doing most of their adult lives that they would still prefer to do themselves.
3. Be gentle but firm. This conversation shouldn’t be a stern, “it’s my way or the highway” one, but rather is a chance to find out how to best live together. There will likely be a little give and take, but at the end of the day, it’s essential to reach agreements.
4. Boundaries Go Both Ways
It’s also important, when chatting with your parents, to share any boundaries that you have. Remember, they don’t want to feel like a burden and want to contribute to what’s going on in the house. It gives them a sense of purpose to be able to participate in household activities.
But you might need to gently remind them that you are your children’s parent and that you and your spouse set the rules for them. You may also need to tell Dad that if he’s going to use any tools, he needs to put away when he finishes.
5 Areas to Set Positive Boundaries
What you discuss with your parents when establishing boundaries may be slightly different based on your specific situation, but you’ll want to be sure to cover these five common topics:
1. “KP Duty” – Though it’s not a widely-used term used today, your parents will most likely understand that KP duty is Kitchen Patrol! It’s essential to set a few rules around cooking and your kitchen. Perhaps this is an area that you could really use their help, especially if you’re working from home, and your children’s summer camps have been canceled. Or, maybe Mom has always been the cook in the kitchen, but her liver-and-onions is not on your kids’ most-requested list.
Talking through this and clearly identifying roles helps run a smooth kitchen. Maybe mom can fix dinner one or two nights a week. This will give her a chance to still feel like she’s contributing and do something she loves. The key here is to come to an agreement and then to stick to it.
2. Cleaning/Laundry – Again, having a simple conversation about who’s responsible for what helps to keep things moving smoothly. If Mom insists on doing her laundry, then let her (provided she’s physically able). While cleaning your parents’ room may bring you great joy now, remember that mom cleaning your room as a teenager did anything but bring you joy. If they decline your offer, respect their wishes.
3. Bathrooms – Yes, you may need to discuss a bathroom schedule, especially if several of you share one or two bathrooms. While they may have a need to sometimes go with little warning, discuss general times when others in your house need the bathroom (like evening baths for the little ones or time in the morning to prepare for work).
4. Activities – If your cable box doesn’t currently have a DVR, now may be the time to get one. With many people all wanting to watch the same TV, it’s important that everyone gets to see their shows, even if they’re watching them later. Yes, Jeopardy comes on in the evening, but perhaps your parents would be willing to watch it in the afternoon when no one else is watching TV. Maybe you can watch your favorite HGTV show after Dad’s live sporting event goes off.
Get creative, whether it’s the TV or other activates in the house, find the compromise that works.
5. Privacy – Make sure everyone in the house is tuned-in on issues of privacy. Again, your parents may not wish for you to see their dirty laundry—physical or otherwise. They also need to understand that they can’t just walk into a bathroom without knocking. Again, just getting clear on expectations of what’s ok and what’s not will help keep your home a happy one.
Don’t assume that your parents know how your house runs day-in and day-out. Respectfully address possible issues upfront and set a few ground rules that help clarify expectations. Check in with them every two weeks or so to see how things are going for them (they may not want to rock the boat by speaking up) and revisit any ground rules that might need tweaking.
Positive communication really does go a long way to keep things running smoothly. I hope you are making the most of this unusual time together with your parents.
Until next time, Wellness Warriors, Live Well, Live Long!