"Can I help you?"
"How can I help you?"
"Let me do that for you."
These well-meaning words can be exactly what's needed in the situation, or they can be the first, crippling step toward helplessness.
"The three plagues of loneliness, helplessness and boredom account for the bulk of suffering among our elders." 1
The elderly deal with losses in their bodies on a regular basis. Today, they walk with a sure step. Tomorrow their gait is faltering, and they need a walker. One day, they might not be able to walk at all. Today, they can feed themselves salads and drink tea with enjoyment. Tomorrow, they might need assistance to eat their meal and need their food minced to prevent choking. Because their bodies are slowing down, they aren't able to do what they once could. They need help.
This isn't what I mean by helplessness.
The plague of helplessness is when an elder can do some things, and isn't allowed to. Perhaps he can put on his shirt but has trouble with the buttons. Rather than wait until he gets on his shirt, the care partner takes over the whole operation. They are quicker and more efficient. Soon, he doesn't try any more. Eventually, he can't.
Helplessness strips elders of dignity. It sends a clear message: your value is diminishing.
Many elders need care. How do we combat the plague of helplessness and still provide care?
When providing care, look at what the elder can do, and give them the time and encouragement to do it. The loss of abilities can be frustrating and depressing, so it is important to look at what can be done.
The other day, a resident came to me with a piece of mail that had been delivered to her in error. I was in the middle of something, and almost asked her to leave it on my desk and I would deliver it to reception later. I stopped myself, realizing that she was capable of taking the mail to reception. Her steps were slow, but she would get there. I caught myself in time and directed her to where to take her mail. She did it herself.
Allowing an elder to make a choice, even if it isn't the choice I would make, combats helplessness. Choosing not to eat lunch, choosing two desserts instead of lunch, choosing to wear three shirts, choosing to stay in bed until noon or later, are all choices I have seen in the last few days. I know some of these choices bother those who are caring for the people who made them, but they are choices the elder can make and feel that they have autonomy. They are not helpless. In the end, does it matter if I miss a meal or wear three shirts or sleep until noon? Sometimes the "what matters" is only in the mind of the person providing the care.
Nothing causes tears to spring to my eyes sooner than to see an elder giving to another elder. An encouraging smile, a squeeze of the hand, a word. The opportunity to go beyond ourselves and our own struggles and encourage another is what makes us human. When an elder does that, their inabilities are minimized.
There have been many days when a comment from an elder made my day, and I told them so. When I open myself to receive while caring, the elder I am caring for is no longer helpless. We are in a reciprocal relationship. I receive as much as I give.
As a care partner, I have the ability, with the purest of motives, to create helplessness in those I serve. All I need to do is--everything. I remove choice, because I make better choices and give without recognizing the ways in which I receive. I may feel I'm doing a good, or even an excellent job, but in creating helplessness I am causing suffering.
As a care partner
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Care Partner Wednesday--The Plague of Helplessness