Are you teaching your parents to be helpless?


Blog by Joy Loverde

 People who know me know that I speak my mind when it comes to family caregivers who go overboard with their eldercare  Caregiving Answersresponsibilities. To learn more about this, listen now to my recent radio interview with Frank Samson, host of The Aging Boomers Radio Show

There are many reasons why family members feel compelled to shoulder too much responsibility and become overly involved in their parents’ lives. Feeling needed and useful is a positive life-enhancing experience, and strong support of the care receiver can, at first, result in a positive, tangible boost to the quality of his or her life.  Over time, however, doing more than is necessary creates problems, and is equally harmful for the caregiver and the care receiver.

Author and educator, Kendra Cherry writes, “When people feel that they have no control over their situation, they may also begin to behave in a helpless manner. This inaction can lead people to overlook opportunities for relief or change.”

I have seen it with my own eyes. The impact of consistently doing things for others can result in the erosion of a person’s sense of dignity and competence. Experts say it’s worse than that. Learned helplessness has also been associated with several different psychological disorders. Depression, anxiety, loneliness, and phobias can also be exacerbated.

Here’s an example of what I am talking about.

I have long enjoyed the company of my girlfriend’s 90-year old mother, Mary. I visit her frequently. When I arrive at her house, Mary is quick to fix me a snack and get me something to drink. She zips around the kitchen with joy and vitality; then we sit for hours talking and laughing. On occasion my girlfriend joins us – and something very interesting happens the moment my girlfriend walks in the door.

Mary does not offer to make her daughter a snack or get her something to drink. In fact, my friend is the one who takes charge and does all the asking and serving. Mary sits there and gets waited on. I watch intently as my friend treats her mother as though she is not capable of doing much of anything – and she speaks to her as though this is truth. The energy in the room completely changes. Mary stops laughing and engaging.

If you see yourself in this situation of doing too much, I’d like to introduce you to the concept of “nice to do” versus “have to do.”  Maintaining a healthy balance between family caregiving responsibilities and the real needs of your parents requires that you think twice before jumping in and taking over – even if it’s something as simple as getting Mom or Dad a glass of water.