Caregiving or Codependence?

Renee came to my office asking for help with her parents. She felt overwhelmed by trying to work, be a good wife, raise children, and care for her parents. She felt her folks needed taking care of — that they needed someone to make tough decisions for them, provide for their day-to-day needs, be their emotional support. She could see how their lives had become more challenging as they aged. Renee loved her mom and dad, and she wanted them to know it. It was her responsibility, she believed, to watch out for them.

Renee sounds like the ideal caregiver, right? Well, maybe not. She was stretched to her limit, feeling overextended, and not sure how to “fix” her parents’ situation. Therein lies the rub. While we sharpen our mind-reading skills trying to guess what is best for someone else, resentment can build. What if you don’t guess right? What if your parents don’t feel as well taken care of as you intended?

Showing your love

Taking responsibility for someone else’s total well-being is an impossible endeavor. Oftentimes, children want to reciprocate the care their parents gave to them. Like they knew how to take care of you, you want to know what to do for your aging parents. But this may be uncharted territory – for all of you.

Chances are your elderly parents aren’t experienced at communicating their wants and needs. They have few role models. They may have outlived their parents. They do not come from a generation of exercising discussion around making decisions. They may not analyze or speak about what they want. Having lived through world wars, recessions, depressions, and the greatest number of inventions in the history of civilized society, they just put their heads down and carry on.

Recognizing codependence

So while adult children try to do their best, they may feel trapped and controlled by parents. It’s not just about expressing love. Rather, this type of caregiving may be a sort of insurance to get love in return. Relationships are complicated, and the parent/child one can get bound up by emotional or psychological reliance upon each other. When our behavior is dictated by another’s unspoken need for approval, when we put our feelings aside, when we have trouble saying no, it may be that caregiving has given way to codependence.

Getting to interdependence

The key is to find your way to open communication. What do both caregivers and care-receivers perceive is needed for each other? Rather than taking a best guess, directly speaking about your needs leads to more satisfying results, as well as stronger relationships. What are the issues that are hard to talk about? How do you feel about those issues? Although it may be awkward and uncomfortable, saying what you want and setting boundaries sets everyone up for a kinder sort of caregiving, and one that is sustainable long term.

It’s natural to rely on others, and to offer support to those in need. But getting to interdependence means learning how to offer assistance without fear of disapproval, not worrying about what other’s think, and only doing what you are able. It’s better to speak up and not commit to providing care beyond what you can realistically give. If something goes wrong, talk about it. Establishing a relationship with healthy boundaries does not mean you love any less. It means you want to love better. I know it’s not easy, but it can be done.


If you want to read more about codependence, a good reference is “Codependent No More: How to Stop Controlling Others and Start Caring for Yourself” by Melody Beattie.