How Can I Care for My Loved One without Making Them Feel Helpless?

April 14, 2024 ◊ By Elisa Everts ◊

How Can I Care for My Loved One without Making Them Feel Helpless?

Having the Grace to Let Others Serve You

If you have never had any experience with caregiving (from either side), you may not have developed any preferences or thought about how you'd like to be treated in a situation where you needed to be on the receiving end. Being the oldest child of a blind woman is not exactly a caregiving position, but it is one where you must be very attuned to assisting someone else.

My mother is a fiercely independent woman, one you do not want to make the mistake of patronizing. As a result, I grew up very sensitive to and very aware of the delicate affair of trying to help people without making them feel that they are being helped, without compromising their own independent identities.

Invisible Helping

I remember one Christmas when my mother was opening a large present and at least two male family members silently stood up and took out their pocket knives to wordlessly and unobtrusively help her open that present in a way that didn't make her feel helpless. It was more like she was a queen than the helpless recipient of someone's charity. No one said, "Here let me help you." They just quietly made things happen.

Of course, Americans are almost pathologically addicted to their independence and a lot more likely to get their nose out of joint over an offer of help than people from many other cultures. In some ways, that makes our lives a lot harder, especially when we need care. 

How Could You Be So Selfish?

I became even more sensitive to this when I studied my mother's interactions with her sighted companions for my dissertation. Honestly, it used to really irritate me how my mother would slowly make her way through the house to bring my stepfather his tea seemingly forty times a day. I always thought, Why can't you go get your own damned tea? It will take you a quarter of the time.

She even ironed his shirts (my mom and I would go round and round about whether blind people should iron. I think you can guess who won those rounds). But when I finally let myself take off all my psychological insulation and think about her situation, I realized that, of the two of us, it was I who was the blinder.

Not My Cup of Tea

One thing my mother loved was riding the Honda Goldwing she and my stepfather owned and he drove her all over the Midwest on that thing on their vacations. (If you imagine that I objected even more to the motorcycle than the iron, you imagine right, but they did have a glorious time).

When I was studying blind/sighted interaction for my research, it occurred to me that I didn't know how she manages public bathrooms now that neither I nor my sister are constantly by her side to help her in the Ladies' Room. How do you know the stall is empty, that there's nobody scary in there, that every surface you are about to come in contact with is clean, how to get oriented to each new bathroom layout and so on?

When I asked her, it turns out that my stepfather will go into a McDonald's, for example, and explain "My wife is blind and needs me to assist her in the bathroom; can you go in and make sure it's clear for me to do so?" This is only one of the many extraordinary ways he helps her every single day, always without making her feel that she is being helped.

The Truth Dawns: Interdependence is Crucial

And I finally understood the tea. And the ironing and the cooking and every other thing she does for him. It's all about balance and making sure this is a symmetrical relationship where each gives to the other equally. My mother doesn't want to always be on the receiving end. She wants to give as much as she gets.

In a loving relationship you serve each other. And just because I think it's too much to ask a blind person to do something a sighted person can do with a fraction of the effort does not mean I get to decide what she thinks is too much trouble to do for someone else. How could I be so patronizing?

And how could I fail to see what an extraordinary soul he is for being able to mediate the visual world for her without ever making her feel beholden to him? There is a beautiful hym by a New Zealander named Richard Gillard that asks, "Will you let me be your servant, let me be as Christ to you? Pray that I might have the grace to let you be my servant too." For over forty years my stepfather has been quietly serving her and having the grace to let her be his servant too.

How to Not Get Positioned as Powerless

Obviously, one of the most awful things about being seriously ill (or having a disability) is the deep sense of powerlessness that overtakes you. First, you are powerless because you can't change your situation and you can't predict what is going to happen when. So there is a very real loss of control inherent in the physical, existential condition.

But there is another kind of powerlessness that can be avoided. Well-meaning loved ones may feel that it is their place to give and the other person's place to receive, unilaterally. When I had stage four cancer, I wanted my loved ones to let me continue giving to them as long as I could. I needed for them to let me feel that there was still some interdependence among us, that I was not merely the helpless recipient of their loving care.

When you are in the hot seat and you are the one needing care, you are going to want people to continue honoring your dignity by one, letting you do for yourself as much as you can, and two, letting you give to them even as they are giving to you. This is my first rule of caregiving. Do not take away what agency people still have.

Don't Take Away Anyone's Power Prematurely

There will come a time in many, if not most, caregiving situations where the person being helped will no longer have the strength to serve you. I'm only asking that you do not assume that is the situation before it really is. Let people give and be as independent as possible up till the moment where they no longer can. And let them be the ones to decide when that is.

Recognizing this need for balance and interdependence when people might be tempted to position us as merely dependent is one way we can help each other manage hope.

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About the author

Dr. Elisa Everts is the founder of Evertree Hope Management and is a dynamic public speaker, author and trainer. Dr Everts is passionate about helping cancer patients and bereaved people in their quest to survive and live a full life during and after cancer and grief. She has the personal experience of surviving Stage IV cancer and the loss of many loved ones. She understands the challenges inherent in these experiences and the importance of cultivating hope through the stories we tell others, and even more importantly, to ourselves.

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2 thoughts on “How Can I Care for My Loved One without Making Them Feel Helpless?”

  1. Exactly what I needed, Elisa! Being a 24/7 caregiver for my git-er-done mother for the last three years of her life was like balancing a long pole on a high wire. Tricky. I was good at taking care of, but poor at finding the balance.

    1. You are so right. It is so very tricky. I know I didn’t do the greatest job of it when I cared for my dear Diane in 2001. I tried to treat her like a queen but may have baby-fied her. It took years to wisen up. I hope others can get a head start and not need the twenty years to get there! Respect is such an essential part of love. And caregiving is nothing if not love. xo

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Elisa Everts, phd

Speaker | Author | Educator

Finding Hope in Cancer & Grief

Elisa Everts, phd

Speaker | Author | Educator

Finding Hope in Cancer & Grief

I speak to medical professionals and patients, helping them provide hope when there seems to be none. If you or your organization need someone to help process the difficult topics of cancer and grief, let's set up a complimentary call, 703-656-6691,

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