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How to Set Pandemic Boundaries for Relatives

For many people, that’s a lot more easily said than done.

Jenny Lynn is a wife and the mother of two teenagers in Novato, Calif. Besides managing the pandemic’s extra toll on her immediate family, she has been providing an intense level of daily support to her divorced and separately quarantined parents, including handling their health and financial affairs. “I feel constantly pulled by everyone’s needs, and it’s never enough,” she said. “My version of boundaries is if my dad calls six times in a day, maybe I don’t call him back right away. There have been days I wanted to get on a plane and go away. Not for good, but just for a break.”

When you feel overwhelmed, Dr. Townsend recommends that you create a list of all of your responsibilities, and then identify what you alone can do and what can be outsourced. Ask a friend to share errands or shopping. Take turns venting.

“You also have to determine that just because Dad’s calling me six times a day doesn’t mean I’m the solution,” Dr. Townsend said. “You’ve got to have thick skin so you don’t personalize other people’s misery.”

Jessica Gerber, a senior adviser for a national nonprofit who lives in San Rafael, Calif., has been working to establish good boundaries. “In four days, we went from being empty nesters to three generations of six adults,” Ms. Gerber said. “Our adult kids moved back. My 87-year-old parents moved in. That’s 18 meals a day. It’s like running a boardinghouse.”

Establishing ground rules was the first priority. “I had to be the sheriff,” Ms. Gerber said. “People behave better when they know what’s expected of them, so I said, No. 1, we all have to be kind to each other. No. 2, Grandpa needs to wear hearing aids. No. 3, everybody cleans up after themselves. Sunday’s cleaning day and you’ve got to scrub the toilet, and I’m sorry if you’re 87, you’ve still got to do it.”

These boundaries may be helping, but if she ever intends to re-empty the nest, Dr. Townsend recommends creating what he calls a relaunch vision. “You say, ‘Hey, we know that you don’t want to be here forever,’” he suggested. “But what can we think about to give you, and us, a vision for how great it’s going to be for you to feel autonomous and free and empowered?” The resulting conversation can help the younger person map out steps toward a relaunch.

Many people made promises to loved ones back in March, not realizing how long the pandemic might last.

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