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A Helping Hand


My husband is one of the smartest men I know. At age 83, and in spite of several medical conditions that slow him down, he continues to lead a productive life, but some folks see only his disability, not his ability. Recently Rich got “attacked” by well-meaning women who didn’t know there are occasions to not offer help.

The first episode took place at Dollywood. Rich has neuropathy. He obtains a motorized cart when we’re there, and I stride alongside him. I need the exercise, and he can enjoy the park without discomfort. Rich also has a tremor (it’s Essential Tremor, not Parkinson’s, although he says it’s misnamed—he doesn’t think it’s at all essential.)

We stopped to hear a bluegrass quartet. When we were ready to leave, it took a moment for his wayward hand to push “go.” He pushed the button just as a woman stepped in front of him saying, “Let me help you.” The machine leaped forward. As she stumbled out of the way, she exclaimed, “He was shaking, so I thought he needed help.”

Only a few days later we were celebrating our 29th anniversary at an upscale restaurant. Rich’s hand was misbehaving again, making it difficult to cut the steak—difficult, but not impossible. The waitress appeared by his side and in a too-loud voice asked, “Do you need me to cut that for you?” He shook his head.

I’m sure I, too, have offered help when it wasn’t needed.

I remember opening a door for a professor in a wheelchair when I was in college. A friendly gesture, I thought, but he growled, “Get out of my way!” It’s embarrassing to be publicly rebuffed, but it’s probably equally embarrassing to be offered help when it’s not needed. Should we look the other way when we see someone struggling? Should we wait to be asked? I’m five feet tall. When I need something off an upper shelf at the grocery store, I wait for help. If someone notices me struggling and asks if I want assistance, I’m grateful.

But sometimes helping is inappropriate.

Rich relates the story of a man interviewing for a pastoral position. The wife joined them for lunch as part of the interview process. As they talked, she casually reached over and cut her husband’s steak. He didn’t get the job.

I’ve worked in an assisted living facility for years. We encourage residents to do as much for themselves as possible. The adage, “Use it or lose it,” is true. We teach caregivers not to be rescuers because although a task may be challenging, intervention isn’t usually necessary. For example, constantly pushing a person’s wheelchair inhibits his motivation to go places under his own power. Without motivation, ability declines. Loss of ability takes a toll on self-esteem.

Another occasion where helping may be inappropriate is when there’s a companion. If help is needed, that person will probably help. Rich has been dealing with the tremor since he was a boy. He’s learned to compensate. He has accomplished more with a tremor than most people have with rock-steady hands. He’ll ask for assistance if he wants it.

Finally, we shouldn’t try to help if we don’t know how. A person who can’t swim shouldn’t jump in to save a drowning man. If we don’t know how to help, we should find someone who does. Ever since the professor incident, I’ve hesitated a moment before offering help to people I don’t know. However, I still err on the side of doing good rather than ignoring a person in need. After all, curing people of niceness would be bad for everyone.

--Diana L Walters


(This article was first published in the spring 2020 edition of Joyful Living Magazine.)


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