Debra Hallisey

A new book by Lawrence resident Debra L. Hallisey examines how a relationship works when children become caretakers for their parents. In the book, she describes the caretaking relationship as a “contract,” and one with a lot of fine print that is difficult to read.

Hallisey is holding a launch party for her book, “Your Caregiver Relationship Contract: How to navigate the minefield of new roles and expectations,” on Thursday, October 17, from 4 to 6 p.m. at CareOne at Hamilton, 1660 Whitehorse-Hamilton Square Road. For more information, call 609-586-4600 or email

Hallisey was the caregiver for her father, who died of heart failure in 2015, and she continues to take care of her mother. She is the founder of Advocate for Mom and Dad LLC and blogs about caregiving at

“Mom you should not be living at home alone.” “Dad, you need to stop driving.” Have you ever said “You must … You should…” or “You always … You never…” with your parents? In her new book Hallisey explains why these conversations go nowhere.

“Throughout our caregiving years, we can fall into the trap of trying to parent our parents. In the early years safety is typically the biggest concern. At the same time our parents are holding onto control tighter than ever, precisely because they have already lost so much — health, mobility, friends, and family that share their history.”

As Hallisey states in her book, “This need to maintain control is where the language we use as caregivers matters. Conversations that take away control, such as ‘you need to move because your bedroom and bathroom are upstairs,’ will more than likely have your senior digging in their heels. When you acknowledge their desire and offer alternatives, you often have a place to start negotiations.”

The keys to getting your senior to change a decision or attitude are language, keeping control with them, and knowing what motivates them. Here are some tips from Debra’s book.

Name the change you need; loved ones are not mind readers. “In an earlier chapter I shared that watching TV with Mom was one of the social outlets that bound us together. When we lost that piece of our relationship for a while, it was hard for me not to push her and hard to respect her decision to keep the TV in the den. By the same token, it was hard for her to tell me why she was avoiding watching her favorite programs. Ultimately, when the time was right, when the motivation was right, she felt safe enough to tell me her fears.”

“If you don’t name the change, you won’t find a way to create the change. Naming a change means looking within yourself to determine what is making you feel vulnerable, anxious, angry, or resentful. Then it’s a matter of finding the right opportunity, time, and place to bring up the topic so you can have a productive discussion and figure out a new way of doing things.”

Discuss the change you need. The time and place need to be right in order to be heard. “Mom’s willingness to tell me about her fear, despite feeling vulnerable, allowed us to figure out a new way to watch TV together. In discussing how to make it happen we advanced and discarded several ideas. Which chair should I bring into the dining room for her to sit on in comfort? Where is the best place to put the chair so she has something to hold onto when it is time to get out of it? Together we figured out a new way to keep our social bond and watch our favorite programs, and we laughed every time I had to remind her to take the headphones off so we could talk.”

“It was Mom’s willingness to share her fears with me, to name the change she needed, that allowed us to renegotiate this part of our contract. It was my willingness to not push her about moving the TV, even though I thought it was a perfect solution. In the end Mom trusted that I would listen to her fears, and that together we would work to find a solution. This is how a caregiver contract evolves.”

Language: Rules of engagement. “I recently had a conversation with my mother around a family event. That conversation is not finished, but I was in the car driving while we were having it, so the time and place were not right.

“We are invited to a family wedding on one of the Saturdays when I am not her caregiver. Since Mom doesn’t get the opportunity to be with family often, it is important to both of us that she goes. The problem is she wants me to stay at her house after the event but I want to go home. For the first time I am hearing she will not go if I don’t spend that night at her house; otherwise, she will worry about me driving late at night. I’m starting to feel manipulated and angry as we’re having this conversation.

“Mom, I’m frustrated that you won’t go if I don’t promise to stay at your house that night. You just said you don’t get to see this part of the family often, and now you’re saying it doesn’t matter if you go. I know that is not true.”

“Her response: ‘Well, there is still time to decide.’

“I still felt frustrated and manipulated, and now I felt guilty as well. Here’s the thing: My mother is a champion worrier. I used to feel guilty when she worried because I was traveling for work or driving in bad weather to a meeting. I was sure I had resolved not taking this guilt on because no matter what, she will worry. I can’t change who she is. But this feels different because this type of social outlet is what binds our relationship contract together.

“I am sharing this exchange because it is a good example of how the rules of fair fighting are applied to conversations.

“I could feel myself getting angry. I had to stop talking in order to figure out that I was feeling manipulated and frustrated by her position.

“It was important that I tell her how I felt; in other words, ‘I’m feeling frustrated’ but not ‘You always do this.’

“Continuing the conversation was futile. It was not the right time or place, and she was right: We didn’t have to decide right then.”

Asked how the idea of the book came about, Hallisey explains:

“As my mother’s caregiver I realized that our mother/daughter relationship, our ‘contract,’ changed when I became her caregiver. When you allow yourself to think about a relationship in these terms, what you are willing or unwilling to do for one another, what social outlets and activities bind your relationship together, it helps us to recognize there is an unspoken contract. This book is a way to help other caregivers co-create a new relationship contract in a loving and supportive way.”

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