Receiving Care with Grace: A Choice between Reluctance and Generosity

Article excerpt

Six months after her husband's death following his years of heart failure, 75year-old Alice entered psychotherapy for depression - and for an imbalance in her ability to give and receive.

For all of her life, Alice had tried to please her parents, nurture her younger siblings and serve her husband and their family. But since her husband was gone, and her four children and eight grandchildren didn't seem to need her, she felt lost and empty.

Alice's children, however, had a very different story to tell. They revealed to their mother's therapist that they felt guilty about asking Alice to cook or babysit for them; she had always worked so hard and now had her own health problems. And when they tried to help their mother by offering to bring her food or to take her places, Alice flatly refused, bristling at their kindness.

This common family scenario illustrates the aphorism that "it is easier to give than to receive." For many of us, giving also seems nobler. That is the implicit message in former President Bill Clinton's call to public service in his book, Giving (New York, N. Y, Knopf, 2007). That's how many of us feel in our professional and personal lives as we muster our best energies to give generously to others in need. That's how Alice felt through most of her life.


Aging usually entails many different losses. Alice not only was bereft of her grateful spouse, but of what she felt was a gratifying role of being the indispensable and indomitable caregiver. Having to receive from her children-or anyone else - was not only unfamiliar to her, it made her feel diminished, haggard and depressed.

Surely, cultural and social forces make receiving help a challenge for elders like Alice. The vaunted American traits of stubborn independence and self-sufficiency probably compound the reluctance we may feel when we realize we need tender care from others.

This may also be true for more communal societies. According to Japanese psychiatrist Toshi Watanabe, who has written on the mind of the care-receiver, receiving help from others is frequently experienced as shameful, even in Japan's more communally-oriented culture. …