Caring Currents

For Family Caregivers, Saying "No" Is an Act of Love

Last updated:

October 13, 2008
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When you're caring for a family member, every once and a while a bit of advice comes along that really hits home. It simply and undeniably makes you feel better.

One of mine was about wiggling a chin.

I learned this lesson years ago while in a support group for parents of disabled or seriously ill kids (yes, I have one). But believe me, it applies to all family caregivers, regardless of who they're caring for, infant to elder. And, it applies to far more than chins.

Here goes: When the final straw is dropping, when you’re maxed out, when you’re overloaded: It’s OK to say no! And this really, truly doesn’t mean you’re unloving or uncaring. The opposite is true: Taking care of yourself helps you take care of others.

Here's the story. The woman who ran this support group is a psychologist and the mother of a disabled daughter -- a teen at the time. Her list of daily daughter-care tasks was long -- feeding, dressing, bathing, brushing teeth, and hair. One day a speech therapist suggested one more task: Wiggle your daughter’s chin every day. This might help her oral motor skills.

This was the straw that almost broke the camel's -- well, OK, the caregiver’s -- back. Wiggling her daughter’s chin daily wasn’t a difficult job, this woman said. But symbolically it represented a kind of brink, a breaking point -- it was huge.

And so, she reported to the support group, she politely told the speech therapist no. She loved her daughter dearly, but she wasn't going to wiggle her chin. She'd look for someone who could. She glanced at all of us, and said: "Remember. You don’t need to do it all.” It sounds cliché, but there really was a hush in the room.

All caregiving situations are different. But something many family caregivers share is difficulty saying no, backing off, asking for help. They say they feel guilty doing this, that it's a sign of failure. I hear this often from visitors. My response: Try shifting your perspective. The next time you're at the tipping point, nearly-overwhelmed -- take care of yourself. If it’s an essential task, then beg, demand, plea, or pay for help.  If it’s not, let it go.

The truth is, knowing our limits makes us better caregivers. Knowing our limits can be an act of love.  

Image by Flickr user Fast Eddie 42 under a Creative Commons Attribution License.