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Saying “No” May be the Right Answer

Saying “yes” when someone asks you to do something can be like eating candy.  It feels right or good at first bite, but the “good” feeling doesn’t last very long at all…in fact, within half an hour the sugar crash after the rush may seem so not worth it.  If you are a caregiver to an older loved one, you may have found that the more times you say “yes” to the requests for help with mom the less it feels like a “good deed,” and more and more like one sugar crash after another.  In fact, over time you will begin to resent the requests and the person asking the favors.  It’s called burnout, and burnout is self-inflicted.

What’s the solution?

Learn to say “no” without apologizing, and learn to set what I have always called “loving limits,” a technique that I learned early in my career as a mother.  And it works going up the family tree as well as down.  The real sign that you may be approaching burnout if you are a caregiver can be found in the first emotions you feel when the favor is asked.  If you find yourself looking forward to that time with mom, doing that errand with mom or whatever is being asked of you, then you are doing fine.  If, on the other hand, you immediately feel your gut tighten or you feel resentful that the person is asking of your time…AGAIN or you feel just plain put out, you are on a path to burnout.

So, the answer is not just saying “no.”  It’s a “no thank you” with context and a bit of nuance, and it takes practice to get it right:

  • I am overbooked already, but …
  • I appreciate your thinking of me, but…
  • That (task) is really not in my wheelhouse…
  • No, I’m not a chauffer, but let’s plan on …

You’ll get creative with this language by practicing.  Instead of viewing the asking party as mom and immediately feeling obligated, think of it as a request from a volunteer organization with whom you have no history of repeated “yes.”  Thank the asking party for thinking of you as you decline.  Ask for a delay to check your calendar.  Know that you can be assertive while still being respectful…think of it as respect for you and respect for the asking party.  Appreciate also that you can reverse course and say no later, explaining that you wished to give them time to find an alternative.

Also, appreciate that if you have been the one to always say “yes” out of obligation or habit that you simply have to learn a new habit that honors you and honors the asking party.  Think of “no” as the opportunity to reserve “yes” for when you actually have the time or the bandwidth to successfully and positively complete the task.  Remember that relationships are a good deal like being good neighbors…boundaries are important for both parties’ success.

Charlotte Bishop is an Aging Life Care Advisor, Geriatric Care Manager and founder of, certified professionals who are geriatric advocates, resources, counselors and friends to older adults and their families in metropolitan Chicago.  She also is the co-author of How Do I Know You? A Caregiver’s Lifesaver for Dealing with Dementia

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