When Caregiving Means Not Helping

When Caregiving Means Not Helping

The Trap

If you’re like me, your caregiving has evolved. It starts with a little help with a few things around the house. You stop by to check in on your loved one(s) and see if there’s anything they need. You start going to doctor’s appointments with them. You run to the pharmacy to pick up medication. You purchase and install those daily living aids that help them stay independent. And you call to see what they need from the grocery store since you’re there already. And then one day you realize that you’re taking care of most of their needs. But is that what’s best for them?

We think of caregiving as doing things for other people. But if you ask a professional physical therapist or occupational therapist, often they’ll tell you that you should let the caree do things for themselves. An unused muscle will atrophy. So when we do something for someone else, we may be robbing them of muscle strength.

For example, I found myself doing ALL of my parents’ grocery shopping. One trip to Costco had the cashier asking in amazement, “How many people do you have in your family?” I explained with, “I’m shopping for two households.” For some of the items, I could split the quantities, which made the shopping more efficient. But one day I realized that by helping Mom, I was doing her a disservice.

My father doesn’t get out of the house except for doctor’s appointments. Consequently, my mother doesn’t leave the house because she doesn’t want to leave him alone –for his safety in case he needs something. Though my mother is mobile and moves around the house normally, her impression that she walks is false. There are only so many “miles” you can walk in your own home, even if you go up and down stairs. So I decided to stop “helping” Mom.

A New Approach


My new approach to helping her with her groceries is to go over to their house to stay with Dad while she goes to the store. This way she gets activity, she gets fresh air, and she gets to be around other people. (Though she did complain that it’s where she got her last cold.) It may not be much, but it can make a difference over time.

Look at it as physical therapy

One step better would be to team up with my siblings so one of us can go with her while the other stays with Dad. When that scenario is not possible, Mom can get help loading her car after shopping, and I unload the car when she gets home. These shopping trips don’t have to include everything, such as heavier, bulkier items, or a few oddball items here and there. But generally speaking, I’ve decided not to do all their grocery shopping –for my mother’s sake.

In the End

So the next time you find yourself jumping up to help, consider whether it might be better for you to take a back seat. If your loved one is capable, have patience and let them exert the energy it takes to do a task. BUT, only if they are sure to be safe in the process.

Tough love? Maybe. But love all the same.

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