How do you set boundaries on how much help you can reasonably give to aging parents?

This week I’m re-running a series I wrote a few years ago. We started  yesterday talking about how parents should really try to help their adult children who will be caring for them one day, by moving closer, getting rid of stuff, and creating a life of their own so they’re not totally dependent on their kids.

It hit close to home with lots of comments here and on social media, and so I’d like to delve a little further into this.

So let’s start with a central question: How much is it reasonable to expect that you will do for aging parents?

Before I can answer that, let’s go back to first principles about what God wants from us.

Biblical Principles About Caring for Relatives

Our primary responsibility on earth is to our families

1 Timothy 5:8 says:

Anyone who does not provide for their relatives, and especially for their own household, has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.

1 Timothy 5:8

We are to honour and respect and care for our parents; Jesus even rebuked the Pharisees for giving money to the temple that they should have been using to care for their parents! (Mark 7-9-13).

People should reap what they sow, and our well-being matters too.

At the same time, as many people mentioned yesterday, there are limits to this.

Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. The one who sows to please his sinful nature, from that nature will reap destruction; the one who sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life.
Galatians 6:7

Some of us grew up in abusive homes where parents treated us cruelly, and where parents still do treat us cruelly, and to continue to submit yourself to that is harmful for your own emotional well-being. The Bible talks a lot about shaking the dust off your feet and having nothing to do with fools, and some people may need to leave parents behind. Others may need to draw firm limits.

I can’t speak to what that should look like, because it does vary in each person’s case, but we should not feel that just because someone gave birth to us that this means that we are obligated to help them for life if they also abused us.

Now, some more perspectives:

We are to help each other

Paul writes in Galatians 6:2,

Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.
Galatians 6:2

However, we are also to be responsible for ourselves.

Paul then writes three verses later:

for each one should carry their own load.
Galatians 6:5

Here’s what’s interesting about “load” vs. “burden”: In the Greek, a “load” is something that someone should be expected to carry by themselves. A burden is something which is too heavy for one person to bear.

What do these four principles say when you put them all together? 

First, all of us are responsible to do for ourselves what we can do for ourselves. Nevertheless, people will have burdens that they will need help with. When that happens, we are responsible first to care for the burdens in our own families before we try to carry the burdens of others. This responsibility, however, is not absolute.

Keeping that in mind, then, let’s look at a scenario that was left in the comments to the original version of yesterday’s post:

My in-laws are aging and live in an old home that they are constantly working on. Trouble is, they don’t have the stamina or ability to do as much as they once could. They often mention having my husband come drive the hour and a half to help. But we have our own old farmhouse that needs attention, and multiple young kids who crave time with their Dad when he is not at work! And then there is time to try and connect in our marriage, extra curriculars for kids ( we only have one car) and church obligations. Not to mention we don’t have family who are willing to babysit our kids for a few hours so we can actually go on a date or something. I feel so unchristian but I get so frustrated at the expectation that my husband should be there to help when they are doing things that they are not as capable doing anymore that are not necessities. And the downsizing is key too. We have talked at length at how in the world we are ever going to deal with all the stuff eventually. And as a one, lower income family trying hard to make smart financial decisions, this kind of stuff keeps us up at night. We are often the ones expected to travel for every holiday too to various family members. The gas costs are often a stress for us. We never do live up to the expectations imposed on us and I sometimes wonder if God is so very disappointed in us and thinks we are selfish. 

Okay, great question! I really love Dr. Henry Cloud’s and Dr. John Townsend’s approach in their book Boundaries. They take a biblical look at how to decide BOTH what we say no to and what we say yes to–because when we’re saying yes to something, we’re simultaneously saying no to something else. There is only so much time, energy, and money that each person has, and we have to figure out how to divide it up. So here are some questions to ask:

Are they asking me to share a burden or a load?

You have two families–your nuclear family and your family of origin. When it comes to responsibility, your nuclear family comes first. Your first responsibility is to make sure that your nuclear family has all of its necessities met, and then you make sure that your family of origin has its necessities met.

After that comes all the optionals (extracurricular activities, etc.)

So let’s say your parents are living a fair distance away in a home they are no longer capable of maintaining. Is it reasonable to expect that you will help them to maintain it? 

Quite frankly, I’d say no. Sure, you can visit every month or so and help with a few things, but you can’t take on the whole responsibility.

Your parents have plenty of options: They can sell the house and move into an apartment. They can move closer to you. They can even (potentially!) move in with you. They can hire other people to fix up the house for them.

It is your responsibility (within the limits of your relationship) to make sure that your parents have a decent, comfortable place to live. It is not your responsibility to maintain a house for themselves that they are no longer capable of maintaining themselves, if there are other options available, and especially if that house is far away from where you live.

What they are doing is asking you to bear their loads, not their burdens. And the more people’s loads you bear (the more you do things for others that they could do for themselves), the less energy and time and money you have to bear people’s genuine burdens. That’s why Paul also said in 2 Thessalonians 3:10:

For even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: “The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat.”
2 Thessalonians 3:10

If we’re all busy doing things for people they can do for themselves, then we’re spinning our wheels and we’re not meeting genuine needs.

Are my parents doing all they can for themselves?

It could very well be that your parents are no longer capable of looking after their house. When that day comes, it may be time for a frank discussion about moving into an apartment or a seniors’ residence where some meal preparation is also done.

But it’s not just practical issues parents need help with. Another commenter wrote:

Your 3rd point – have a life of your own – is so smart. My parents have no friends and no hobbies or ministries. They depend on me and my siblings for friendship and entertainment.

Let’s put this one to the test, too. In this case, parents love their kids and just want to spend all of their time with their kids and get all their emotional needs met by their kids. But this puts a lot of pressure on the kids, and often saps energy from the kids. And it’s so guilt inducing! If you know that your mom is horribly lonely if you don’t talk to her, then your relationship becomes one of obligation and guilt rather than something that is freely given and enjoyed.

So ask yourself: Is your mom putting her own “load” on you? She’d prefer not to meet people and not to get out of the house because it’s easier. But then you become responsible for her load. And if you accept that responsibility, you enable her to hibernate in her house. That means that she won’t be giving anything back to her community or her church. She won’t be volunteering. She won’t be encouraging younger women or befriending those of her own generation.

My mom goes to several knitting groups in little towns close to where we live, where for the last ten years she has shared the story of the Kenyan children’s home where we frequently visit (and we’re leading another medical team there this August!). She’s devised a super-easy garter stitch sweater pattern, and over the last decade we’ve taken over 10000 handknit sweaters to the home.

Staying active when you're older

Many of these sweaters are knitted by senior women, who often don’t get out of the house much. But they love the thought that they can still help in a tangible way. One woman in her 80s in England even mails my mom sweaters, and writes her a note about how important it’s become to her that she can still make a difference in the world.

Making a difference when you're a senior citizen

There is so much that seniors can do if they look around for it! You can help point your mom (or mom-in-law) in that direction, but let me be clear: If she chooses not to follow it up, that is not on you. That is on her. You can show her, but you cannot make her make different choices.

(There’s another genuine load parents need to carry–getting their legal affairs in order. We’ll deal with that in a subsequent post!)

What if your parents’ needs become genuine burdens?

I’ve been talking about bearing parents’ loads. But sometimes parents have genuine burdens! They get Alzheimer’s and they need a lot of care. They have mobility issues. They need to move and they need help doing so. These things do require our care. I’m going to talk about that later this week, especially about how we can negotiate things with our siblings when parents need help.

How can we talk about this in a healthy way?

So let’s say that your parents really are making unreasonable demands on you–either they want you to bear their “loads”, or they’re asking you to carry their burdens without lifting a finger to help by agreeing to move, for instance. How can you talk about this?

Reaffirm the relationship

Stress to your parents that you love them, and that you want to have a relationship where you enjoy them and where it’s focused on just being together, rather than always rushing around and stressing and doing errands. You’d like to minimize the burden so that you can still enjoy each other.

Reaffirm that you are there for them

Tell them that you love them and that you do want to care for them and make sure they are never alone.

Be clear that you can only do so much

However, with that being said, you do have a limited amount of time, money, and energy, and you also have other commitments (such as their grandchildren). You can say something like:

I remember how important it was to me, Mom, that you were there for me when I was a teenager and that you got to know so many of my friends. I want to do that with my children, too. But it’s becoming so difficult since we have to spend every weekend visiting you and helping you, and I’m afraid I’m missing out on the relationship that I know you want me to have with my children. So let’s talk about how we can figure out time so that I still am able to be a great mom myself.

Give them choices

Just as you have the ability to say yes or no to things, giving them some choices allows everyone clarity. For instance, you can say:

Mom and Dad, I know you love this house, and I do want you to enjoy where you live. So if you decide to continue living here, I totally understand that. But we are no longer able to help you fix it up. There is too much to be done on our own home, and we still have kids living at home. However, if and when you’re ready to sell the house and move into an apartment, we’d love to have you move closer to us so that we can all enjoy each other more and spend more time together!

Now the ball is in their court. They can decide to stay in the house without your help, or they can decide to move, with your help, and live closer.

But–and here’s the kicker–if they decide NOT to move, then you need to stick to your boundaries and say,

“I know your house needs help, Dad, but unfortunately I’m not in the position to give it. I will gladly help you move into a place that is more manageable, though.”

And keep repeating that.

But what if your parents make you feel guilty for not helping them more?

I know it’s hard, but no one can make you feel guilty. That’s a choice you make.

You do what you feel called to do by God. You carry your own load. You carry your immediate family’s burdens. Carry your parents’ burdens. But do not carry their loads. They should be doing what they are able to do, and if they do not–then they must also bear the consequences of those actions, even if it means that they lose your help.

When Aging Parents Need Help: Setting Boundaries

So that’s how I’d see it! What do you think? Am I being too harsh? Have you had to negotiate these sorts of things? How did your parents take it? Let’s talk in the comments!

Sheila Wray Gregoire

Sheila Wray Gregoire

Founder of To Love, Honor and Vacuum

Sheila is determined to help Christians find BIBLICAL, HEALTHY, EVIDENCE-BASED help for their marriage. And in doing so, she's turning the evangelical world on its head, challenging many of the toxic teachings, especially in her newest book The Great Sex Rescue. She’s an award-winning author of 8 books and a sought-after speaker. With her humorous, no-nonsense approach, Sheila works with her husband Keith and daughter Rebecca to create podcasts and courses to help couples find true intimacy. Plus she knits. All the time. ENTJ, straight 8

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