Diana Walters: A Boomer's Ruminations - To Help Or Not To Help

  • Wednesday, February 21, 2024
  • Diana Walters
Hey fellow baby boomers, do you ever wonder how much you should help your parent, spouse or friend, and how much is simply enabling them? Sometimes assisting is not as helpful as it seems. 
My husband is one of the smartest men I know. At age 88, and in spite of several medical conditions, he continues to lead a productive life, but some folks see only his disability, not his ability. Rich got “attacked” by a well-meaning woman who didn’t know there are occasions to not offer help. 
We were at Dollywood.
Rich has neuropathy. We rented a motorized cart so he could get around without discomfort while I walked beside him for exercise. Rich also has a tremor (it’s Essential Tremor, not Parkinson’s, although he says it’s misnamed—he doesn’t think it’s at all essential.) 
We stopped to hear a bluegrass quartet. When we were ready to leave, it took a moment for his wayward hand to push “go.” He pushed the button just as a woman stepped in front of him saying, “Let me help you.” The machine leaped forward almost running her down. As she stumbled out of the way, she exclaimed, “I thought he needed help.” 
I, too, have offered help when it wasn’t needed. I remember opening a door for a professor in a wheelchair when I was in college. A friendly gesture, I thought, but he growled, “Get out of my way!” 
It’s embarrassing to be publicly rebuffed, but it’s probably equally embarrassing to be offered help when it’s not needed. Should we look the other way when we see someone struggling? Should we wait to be asked? 
Rich relates the story of a man interviewing for a pastoral position. The wife joined them for lunch as part of the interview process. As they talked, she casually reached over and cut her husband’s steak. He didn’t get the job. 
I worked in an assisted living facility for years. We encouraged residents to do as much for themselves as possible. The adage, “Use it or lose it,” is true. We instructed caregivers to not be rescuers because although a task may be challenging, intervention isn’t usually necessary. For example, constantly pushing a person’s wheelchair inhibits his motivation to go places under his own power. Without motivation, ability declines. Loss of ability takes a toll on self-esteem. 
Another occasion where helping may be inappropriate: When there is a companion. If help is needed, that person will probably help. Rich has been dealing with the tremor since he was a boy. He’s learned to compensate. He has accomplished more with a tremor than most people have with rock-steady hands. He’ll ask for assistance if he wants it.  
Finally, we shouldn’t try to help if we don’t know how. A person who can’t swim shouldn’t jump in to save a drowning man. If we don’t know how to help, we should find someone who does. 
Ever since the professor incident, I’ve hesitated a moment before offering help to people I don’t know. However, I still err on the side of doing good rather than ignoring someone’s need. After all, curing people of niceness would be bad for everyone.

* * *

Diana Walters has enjoyed a long career working with senior adults as social worker, activity director, and volunteer coordinator. She recently retired (at age 76) from paid employment and is now able to devote more time to her writing and her husband (in that order?) She has written devotionals for The Quiet Hour and Upper Room and been published in six Chicken Soup for the Soul books, but she is excited to be writing for and about her fellow Baby Boomers. She can be reached at dianalwalters@comcast.net.
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