Daily Aging: Talk about a time you were truly helpless

July 11, 2014
Heather Reynolds


“Helplessness is such a rotten feeling. There’s nothing you can do about it. Being helpless is like being paralyzed. It’s sickness. The cure calls for a monumental effort to stand up and start walking somewhere, anywhere. But that takes some doing.”
Chuck Barris, You and Me, Babe

Have you ever truly been helpless? I am talking about a time when you truly had to rely on someone else to care for you, to do the simplest things for you. For most of us this occurs because of a long illness, injury, or surgery. The young and healthy recover and soon the thought of being helpless is just a passing memory.

Now envision being permanently helpless. Injury or illness has created a world that you never recover. For some of us, we can still adapt. Technology has created ways for us to adapt to our environment. Electric wheelchairs, changing a home’s layout, voice automated lights, computers, and the love of family and friends to provide support. You are still in your home, you can still drive or use public transportation, and you can still socialize.

Now let’s go a step further. You are permanently disabled and living in a nursing home. This is for both the young and the old. Remember, not all who live in a nursing home are old. Now you really must depend on others for everything…..you are no longer in your own home. You can no longer venture to the kitchen for a midnight snack. You can no longer enjoy a shower or bath alone. If you are fortunate enough to have a private room you at least have your own space. If you have to share with a roommate, you are at the mercy of nurses, aides, and your roommate. This can be the worst for the young. Their bodies are usually the only thing gone. Their minds still explore what should have or could have been.

The ‘call light’ becomes your voice to the outside world. You wait for your turn, your turn to go to the restroom, to get dressed, even a drink of water. Some are so helpless they need someone to change the channel on TV.

So why are these worlds so different? Sharing a communal space takes a special kind of patience. The rules, the culture, the environment is not completely your own.   Now the question is, how we alleviate helplessness in our nursing homes.

Just because you are in a nursing home does not imply that you have no meaning or talents to contribute. Even someone who has no control of their body can give back and care for their community. Homes exploring culture change are doing just that. Residents are encouraged to join committees, to help make decisions about their home. Barriers are being removed, such as locked fridges, nurse’s stations, and public spaces. Culture change homes make all spaces accessible, food available all hours, and rigid schedules are eliminated. Residents are encouraged to do as much on their own as possible. They are even encouraged to help care for others.

We have to look beyond the disease or disability and to the talents, skills, insight, or even love that someone has to offer. That is how you ease the pain of helplessness.

You can find me on twitter! @missionhealth. Check out my web-site and connect with me on Facebook. www.missionhealthservices.org.  Nursing homes really can be different.

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