‘Learned helplessness’ can be overcome

Q. My mother is 87, and with a number of serious health problems, she’s no longer comfortable, or safe, going out on her own. Yet, she’s afraid of staying alone - even in her own home.

As her primary caregiver, I’m caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place. Any suggestions as to how I can both meet my responsibilities and have a small slice of life for myself?

  • A loving daughter, who nonetheless grows wearier by the day

A. At the risk of sounding unduly harsh, let me suggest “learned helplessness” is one part of a most complex problem. Obviously, your infirm, aged mother is constricting your life to a point where soon there will be two mostly unhappy souls.
Simply put, the more you do for your mother, the further into helplessness she withdraws. I have long held high the banner of senior independence, believing most women and men in their 60s and 70s - and even into their mid- and late-80s - can do much more than they believe possible.

My mother-in-law, a widow nearly 82, says: “It’ll be a sorry day when I don’t cut my own grass.” Letha Wages Still, who lives alone in Dacula, Ga., also helps out in the family-owned chicken houses where 52,000 miniature feathered-creatures oftentimes wait on her for food, water and, sometimes, a bedtime story.

In summary, a little instruction delivered patiently, then sweetened with regular doses of encouragement, can in many cases produce wonders among those who consider themselves helpless and homebound.

Dr. Barry Jacobs, a clinical psychologist specializing in family issues, suggests there will be times “when you make the patient uncomfortable by requiring her - or him - to do more for herself, or to adapt to changes in the caregiving plan.”

Social worker and author Vivian E. Greenberg teaches that, “Parents, like children, must continue to grow and to learn; to always be open to life’s lessons.” A longtime observer of the caregiving dynamic, she writes in “Children of A Certain Age” how immaturity and inflexibility are common obstacles in bringing peace and order to the common conflicts between aging parents and adult children.

“I am struck by this resistance, this unwillingness to bend on the part of both generations,” she says. At the same time, Greenberg understands that no parent wants a child to become ill while acting as the caregiver. She then quotes the late behaviorist Joan Erickson, who believed: “You put such a stress on passion when you’re young. You learn about the value of tenderness when you grow old.”

Returning to the case at hand, a possible course of action is for you to present your mother with a choice: 1) she can ride along with you as you run errands, or 2) she can accept that a home health aide (a neighbor or friend, perhaps?) will stay with her while you are away doing chores and carving out a modest personal life.

In the words of Dr. Jacobs: “You reassure your mother that these changes will enable you to do more of what you want: to lovingly care for her.”

Note: Dr. Jacobs is a frequent contributor to “Take Care,” the quarterly newsletter published by the National Family Caregivers Association. If you have a question, send it to: What Can I Do?, 10400 Conn. Ave., Kensington, MD 20895-3944.

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