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Reader Question of the WeekHere’s the situation: you have young kids. You’re really busy. And now your mom has Alzheimer’s (or someone else in your extended family does), and people need you to drop everything and run. Do you do it? And what if the situation persists–so that you have to give up your life? What do you do?

Every Monday I post a Reader Question and try to take a stab at answering it. Last week I linked to an older post about setting boundaries with parents, and a reader wrote in with this really tricky problem:

My mother-in-law has Alzheimer’s. My husband is one of 3 kids, and one of his siblings moved the mom in to his house. But they said that they’d look after her during the week, but on the weekends they want a break, so the other siblings have to care for her 24 hours every other weekend. I’m a stay at home mom; I could look after her during the week easier, but if I give up every other weekend, my family will hardly ever have any time together. We’ll only go to church together every other week, and the kids are really involved in church. We already have very little time. My husband thinks we should just do it, but I’m so afraid of losing my family. What do I do?

That’s a really tough situation, and there’s so much guilt involved. I’ve had other readers write in with similar problems. One reader had a sister-in-law with schizophrenia who lived in another city. She refused to sign any authorizations for the physicians to talk to her family about her condition or to have power of attorney. Yet every time she got into trouble and ended up in the hospital, my friend would have to drop everything and go to the rescue.

Here are just some general principles that I think need to guide us when we’re trying to decide thorny issues like these:

When your mom (or another relative) has Alzheimer's: Sorting our your responsibility to older relatives who need you.

1. Clarify: What Are Your Main Responsibilities?

Just because someone needs you does not mean that you have to meet that need. Lots of people have needs; the real question is:

What needs has God specifically assigned to you?

In most cases, those would include your children’s and your husband’s emotional, spiritual, and physical well-being. We also must honour and care for older parents. Any community that we are a part of, though, also does have the right to expect certain things that come from being part of a community. When friends, extended family, or our church family has a legitimate need, then we are to step in. As it says in Galatians 6:2,

Bear one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ.

So likely you have a hierarchy of those whose needs you are wholly or partly responsible for: your immediate family; your extended family; your friends; your church community. As the circle gets wider, then those responsibilities should be shared with more people. So while your own children have a high demand on you, and your parents have a demand on you, someone at church would be the responsibility of a wider number of people.

2. Clarify: Is this a Temporary Blip, or a Permanent Thing?

I once received a phone call from a panicked mom from my church. She had taken her child in to the doctor’s office that morning because he just didn’t seem “right”. The doctor sent the child for tests and within a few hours that little boy was admitted to the ICU with problems stemming from diabetes, which had not been diagnosed. She had to stay at the hospital with him.

But she also had kids arriving home from school, and she had no clothes for tomorrow, and her husband wouldn’t be home for a few hours.

I dropped everything, put some of the dinner I was making in a Tupperware container for the mom, headed over and picked up the kids from school, got them some pizza, left them with a friend, collected some clothes for the mom and the boy, and went to the hospital and delivered dinner and clothes–and a novel and a crossword puzzle book. I spent some time sitting with her and talking with her before coming home.

That was a temporary emergency, and I would hope that most of us would drop everything and run for that. But what my two readers are describing isn’t temporary; it’s something which will be a long-term responsibility. And that requires a different response.

3. Ask Yourself: What Am I Capable and Willing to Do While Still Fulfilling My Main Responsibilities?

The problem with decisions like this is that we have the wrong starting point.

We begin with: “My mother-in-law needs someone to care for her full-time, and there is no one else, so I’ll have to do it.” Or we say, “My sister needs someone to rescue her, and she has no friends or relatives except for me, so I’ll have to do it.”

We’re starting with the need.

If you do that, the need will suck you dry. And I do not believe that God wants you exhausted, and unable to tend to your main responsibilities (your kids). You can only do so much. He only gave you so much time, so much energy, and so much money. You need to be a wise steward of those things.

So instead, ask yourself: what am I capable, willing, and called to do?

BoundariesI believe that there are times where we are definitely called to sacrifice–especially for our parents. However, even this does have its limits. There are times when you just can’t do it all.

The woman with the mother-in-law with Alzheimer’s, for instance, is willing to do some work on the weekdays. She’s willing to give some weekends–just not every other weekend. And it’s okay to take a look at your life and say, “I’m able to do this much, but no more.” It’s called setting a boundary, or setting a limit, and the book Boundaries by Henry Cloud and John Townsend is excellent at explaining how to do this and showing how healthy boundaries are actually part of a healthy Christian life.

Sit down with your husband and say, “this is what I can do. I can give one day a week during the week, or one weekend a month. But that is all, because I think any more than that will exhaust me and harm our own family.”

He can choose to spend more of his time; that is his choice. But you are being clear about what you can do and still be emotionally healthy and able to raise your children well.

Here’s why it’s important to do this: Often until we say, “I cannot meet all of these needs,” we don’t find the solution that God actually wants for us. We throw ourselves totally into it and we make ourselves exhausted, but perhaps God had another option. Maybe you could pool your money and pay for a week of relief in a home every month. Maybe you could see if there’s a volunteer agency that could send him help once a week. Maybe there’s a government program she could qualify for. Maybe there are other friends who might be willing to help on a rotating basis if it was manageable, like once every two months. But you don’t start exploring these options until you say, “I can’t do this.”

4. Accept that Others May Not Be Happy

It’s messy to say no. Other family members get mad. Sometimes our spouse gets mad.

In this case, one family member has taken on a HUGE responsibility by having her live there, and it’s easy for that family member to turn around and say, “I’m doing all this, the least you can do is every other weekend.” Put like that, it does seem selfish to refuse.

But here’s the thing:

You never asked her to take the mom in to live full-time.

Part of having boundaries  is also letting other people have their own boundaries. This other family member needs to be told, “What you’re doing is wonderful, and we thank you for it. But we can only help this much. If that just isn’t enough, we would be happy to sit down with you and try to figure out a better solution, since it doesn’t seem as if we can do this.” Just because someone else has decided to give X amount does not mean that you are likewise required to give X amount. We are each solely responsible for our own choices.

Just because someone has a need does not mean you need to be the one to meet it. It means you need to run to God and pray and listen and wrestle and seek His calling for your life. It will be uncomfortable. And sometimes we are asked to sacrifice so that we can care for a relative. But the answer isn’t the same for each family, because each family has different schedules and different demands. So pray about it, and then draw a boundary. Say, “This is what I’m able to do. If that isn’t enough, I’m happy to throw my energy into finding another solution.”

There always is a solution that will not require you to burn yourself totally out, because I don’t think that’s God’s will for you. So seek it. Run after Him. And ask Him to show you and give you wisdom. Don’t let guilt make you do things that aren’t yours to do.

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