Helping others…. and sometimes stepping aside

Eleanor’s favorite place to hang out

My mother called me yesterday afternoon and told me that she wants to buy a computer and would like me to go with her to the Apple store in Albany.  I know that she wanted me to be excited and encourage her, but I can’t. The extent of her technical expertise (and interest) is turning the TV on and off (in all fairness, she can change the channel and control the volume too).

I fell silent and she said, “What?”…I said,  “I don’t want to discourage you mom, but I really can’t see you using a computer.” She has had the same voice message on her antiquated answering machine for 10 years (and doesn’t want to learn how to change it), bought a DVD player but doesn’t use it because she is intimidated by it, can’t use a cell phone, and has never shown any interest in learning one electronic thing.

I finally said, “How about Bob going with you?” Bob is my brother (who I don’t think reads my blog or he would kill me) who lives around the Albany area. I can’t imagine that he would have any more faith in her, in this endeavor, but he can’t have less. Finally, I said, “Mom, I think you should have someone go with you who believes in you in this area, and it’s not me. You need a person who sees this as possible. Maybe one of the grandchildren?” Then she got “snippy” and said, “Fine, let’s meet for breakfast when you get a chance. Bye.”

I know that I hurt her feelings, and that was not at all my intention, but this isn’t something that I am being called to get involved with, and I can feel it. For years when we’d try to help her to understand her new “equipment” her reply would always be, “I do not want to learn anything about it. Just show me how to turn it on and off.” When you tell someone for decades that you are not good at something, eventually they believe you.

Don’t get me wrong, I would be delighted if she actually did buy a computer and learned how to use it. I would love to be proved wrong, but I know that if I cannot see a positive outcome for someone, then I’m of little use to them, and its best for me to step aside and let another (who is able to hold that positive vision) step in.

“Whether you believe you can do a thing or not, you are right“. Henry Ford


33 thoughts on “Helping others…. and sometimes stepping aside

  1. Dearest Mary,
    You are teaching me so very much about setting healthy boundaries!
    You are absolutely correct that someone else would be a good choice for setting your Mom up with a computer– grandchildren are an excellent suggestion!
    Love the quote from Henry Ford.
    Even more, love the picture of Eleanor.
    From Fran

  2. Mary, your post was so in sync with what I experienced with my dad. In his ‘independent’ senior living apartment, he had had a number of phone problems (thank you, Verizon) and the management insisted we buy him a cellphone for emergencies. My dad was one of the smartest people I knew, but not when it came to technology. My sister bought him the simplest cellphone she could fine — with the biggest buttons and numbers — and his grandchildren showed him numerous times how to use it. Long story short: it was never used. He wouldn’t touch it (we knew that, going into it), even in emergencies. I think sometimes society expects too much of older people and that ‘we’ set them up to fail. Then they feel isolated and inadequate, or it morphs into negative thoughts about the world today. Mary, I think you were gently trying to spare your mother from these feelings. I hope things work out, and if someone else can bridge that gap and help her learn, all the better.

  3. Hi Mary, I agree about setting boundaries but this time I would have been excited that she was interested. Having an IPad and seeing how intuitive it is, my guess is your mom could use it. Also, Apple has great classes and for her to attend a class and be exposed to something new would be exciting and good for her…… think. Sorry but I think it would be a good thing for her, just my opinion.

    • That is so funny…i was going to write at the bottom of my post, “And for anyone who thinks that this is a wonderful idea, please send your name and phone number and hours that you are available for tutoring, and I’ll be sure to give them to my mom!” (only kidding here!)

  4. Good morning Mary! I’ve learned that helping someone could actually take the form of stepping aside. And someone once commented on your blog (I think perhaps it was Jill!) that one of the hardest lessons she had learned was that she was not always the right person for the job. These two sentiments really resonate with me. Sounds like you aren’t the right person for computer shopping with Mom! I’ve been mulling this over because I think it would be great if my 82 year old Mom got a computer. Up til now she has wanted nothing to do with “them”, doesn’t understand “them”, I think is intimidated by “them”. Yet, I believe her typing skills would come right back to her and a computer would open her world. More and more she will call and ask my sister or me to look something up for her and has actually used the word ‘internet’, though I am not sure she fully understands what ‘that’ is! I think my sister and I could imagine being in an Apple store with her and it would be painful. It would be amusing at first, perhaps even funny, but then it would be painful…especially for the Apple clerk! My friend and I have often joked that all computers should come with a 3 year old to help us learn how to use them! All that said, I am not surprised your Mother got ‘snippy’. I’ve been in a situation where I really wanted to buy something and a friend tried to talk me out of it. And I remember how I felt. Whether she had a point or not, I found myself getting very defensive…so when my mom decided a few years ago that she wanted a bicycle, my sister and I really had to bite our tongues, despite our concerns of her falling and hurting herself. She got one…a pink one, with a helmet and all of the appropriate safety gear, and along with it came all the memories of her youth, what she once could do, and what she dreamed of doing again. She loves that bike! Has ridden it perhaps 5 times, if that. It sits in the living room, behind the sofa, with the helmet propped on it…adorned like a Christmas tree…and the one and only time I mentioned giving it away or selling it she nicely told me to ‘drop the subject’.

  5. I also have bought or assisted my mom with electronic stuff; tried to teach her about it, you know the story. Sometimes the stuff is not really the issue but not feeling a part of the world. What about community college computer classes to see if she really is serious? We do not have that much time left with our moms and sometimes it is worth just the communication alone. Going to the computer store given her history would certainly not be the answer, but seeing what is behind the impulse might be. Love to you all.

  6. Oh the possibilities! Kathye, I laughed out loud at your comment about a 3 yr old coming with a new device, how true!

  7. this little story about your mother and purchasing an apple struck my funny bone. i totally get it, mary…….. it’s GOOD to be clear.

    been there with my 88 year old mother

    • that really is it for me..getting clear inside and then trusting that .

  8. An on-line ministry suits me just fine, Mary, though I’m not sure you would address it as such; for me it is both thought-provoking, uplifting and sometimes I want to ask questions so I hope you’re okay with that. First of all, it never occured to me not to beat a horse to death. If someone, as your mother has, asked me to help them out, I thought that I was obligated to do so. Yet, reading your posting this morning, it never occured to me that I might not have to do this. In fact, it’s quite a relief not to have to rescue a situation, which my ego tells me I’m fully capable of doing. So, now to my question, as I wrestle with this thought:

    “I know that if I cannot see a positive outcome for someone, then I’m of little use to them, and its best for me to step aside and let another (who is able to hold that positive vision) step in”.

    Can you explain me this, Mary: If I am thinking my way; another person is thinking their way, who is to decide what is the positive outcome for that person. Am I making a decision based on my own agenda or Is it because this person is not falling into my way of thinking and I, not into theirs. Is this a conscious decision not to participate in something because it would only frustrate you given your past experience with your mother (who, BTW, sounds exactly like me. I’m being hauled into the electronics of this century kicking and screaming like your mother…saying: I don’t want to learn how to use this, only how to turn it on and off”…and in fact, had my grandson text my husband last night because I do NOT want to learn how to text…however, my grandson pointed out that it didn’t cost anything to text…so there is motivation in itself).

    Bit long response. Your saying that to step aside is in fact, a relief to me. I don’t have to beat a dead horse to death.

    SandyP in Canada

    • The idea of the “positive outcome” is what they are telling me that they want (i.e. my mother using a computer). I cannot tell if this will happen or not, but I know that I cannot imagine it, and that is all I need to know. My own belief is limited here and I am aware of this.

      • Mary, the choreographer Twyla Tharp said “Don’t sign on for more problems than you must. . . . In short, stifle your inner control freak.” Words for all of us to live by!

  9. My father is exactly the same! He finally got a cell phone and didn’t want to learn how to get his voice mails and never had it turned on. Suddenly, he decided that it may be a good idea to actually learn these things and had a friend teach him. He spent years just showing up at my work expecting me to be able to drop “work” and research his latest need/want on the internet when he arrived or with a “TO DO” list for me when I went home. It never ceases to amaze me how quickly the world of work was wiped from his brain the second he retired. Imagine if I had arrived in his classroom with a list of tasks for him to complete in the middle of his 8th grade English class!

    Over the winter he actually purchased an android iPad and can actually USE IT with some success! He hasn’t quite learned the need for finesse with a screen as he continues to slam his finger down into it but he’ll learn soon enough! When he can’t figure things out, he goes to my niece, thank God! Now he’s on facebook, has an email address, knows how to upload and download things and research to his heart’s content!

    Sometimes they fool ya!

    • “He hasn’t quite learned the need for finesse with a screen as he continues to slam his finger down into it….”

      Deb, I am TRULY rolling on the floor laughing at this description! My dad was the same way. He thought the machine (actually a computer keyboard) had to be shown who was boss. He passed on six years ago at age 92, and had succumbed to blindness a bit before that, but I always applauded his tenacity in trying to see what his screen held and what else he could search out.

      You brought my dad back for a few minutes with your post, and I thank you for that.

  10. Your Mom could sign up for a computer class, then ask her instructor for advise. I’ve know a few old ladies, one who is in her late 90s who took college computer classes. She does fine, and is on Facebook. Still drives, too. Even drove herself to Washington DC. Amazing!

  11. I agree with you here, Mary, and I love Kathye’s story about the pink bike behind the couch. My now-gone paternal aunt was widowed for the last 6-8 years of her life just as the Internet hit. Amazing all of us, she learned the early Internet, eventually had a seniors’ column in the Modesto Bee via her computer, and kept in touch with all, usually with a 20-pt. headline missive (hough we did have to retire the Cadillac).

    I like the idea of advising a senior computer class–would she be able to carry that out?

  12. I’ve always tried to be enthusiastic and encouraging whenever someone I know wants to learn something new…even if I thought that they would never succeed. Mother/daughter relationships can be difficult sometimes, and I see how helping her with a computer could ignite all kinds of unpleasant situations. My mom passed away ten years ago, and it’s hard for me to imagine her ever using a computer:) I think I would have encouraged her, though, if she had shown an interest. Sharing photos and emails would have been great. There is all kinds of help for your mom to learn about computers, though, and I think she should go for it. Find a senior center and ask them about resources in her area. I once heard about an Eagle Scout . His special project was helping seniors learn how to use computers. There is help for her out there. Having said all of this, I think that someone other than you should help her with the actual purchase of a computer. I do believe in boundaries, and you should do whatever is necessary to keep your relationship with your mom as uncomplicated as possible. It just made me feel a little bit sad when I read your post today, and I wanted to suggest something positive regarding your situation Mary:)

    • Michele, that’s a wonderful idea! What a fun way for a computer savvy teen to make a little extra pocket money this summer. Almost like an intro to parenting too, as the roles would reverse and the teen would learn P-A-T-i-E-N-C-E and may even discover a new ‘grandma’ or ‘grandpa’ that would delight in them too.

  13. What a burden this post has taken off my shoulders, Mary. I love your “How-to’s.”
    Clean, simple….and profound. Thanks, as always, for always having great insight.

    • Thank you Leah…growing up, I was never allowed to say no (to something that my parents wanted) and this carried over into adult life…feeling like I must say yes to every request. …it nearly wore me out and I found many times I would follow through but with a less than a great attitude …I never knew that my first obligation was to my inner voice, the still small voice within that would lead me perfectly, if I dared listen, if I dared risk someone being upset with me for not getting involved with “their plan”,…. but the Divine in me (in us all) leads by that quiet internal voice and no one on the outside of us can tell us whether or not we “should” do something or not…its been a lot of trial and error but it has been so worth it…the human journey; from our reasoning heads to our hearts.

      • Mary – Oh my gosh, this is exactly how I’ve been feeling as I read over your post and all the comments. “I was never allowed to say no” – how many of us can relate to that?? It’s taken me a long time to feel OK with not saying yes to every request that comes my way. And there is still a part of me that worries about someone being upset but I’m better able to distinguish what truly is being said by that internal voice. Thank you so much for your wise words! You truly live in my head sometimes. 🙂

      • Mary, I, too, am of the era when parents were not said no to and certainly were not challenged or questioned so your remark struck home with me as well. As a result, I think many of us grew up not knowing good boundaries and not knowing ourselves very well. Smile and be agreeable, girls were back then. I think giving children a chance to reason out choices is a much better way of doing things yet there is not always the time to do this with kids given two parents working as most are these days. I’d like to think it’s a better way in which to raise youngsters but what does alarm me is the lack of respect I see in the younger kids today…and by that, I don’t mean necessarily teenagers. The media, movies, television, video games, can be very harsh, noisy and aggressive. No peace in there for the soul to grow.
        SandyP in Canada

  14. My Dad came to live in Washington at the age of 89 and although he had no technical skills whatever, like your Mom, he wanted a computer. I won’t say that it worked out well….I was always trying to talk him through problems over the phone or else just jumping in the car and going over to rescue him. But he was able to read bits and pieces of news from the BBC and he managed to email my brother. Who am I to say it was a waste? I just felt bad that he would get so frustrated when things went wrong. I had to admire his determination!

  15. While I can relate – my 92 year old mom struggles with the tv remote and calls me and my siblings when she thinks there’s a problem and I have friends (and myself, actually) whose computers and cells are not used for all they can do – I think computers can be such a blessing to older folks. Most libraries have free computer basic classes – maybe suggest she try a class to get a feel of it before making a purchase and then enlist (bribe?) a grandkid or a trusted neighborhood teen to be her support…

  16. how embarassing – just read more of the above posts and see this was suggested already – sorry!

  17. Mary, your honesty and inner exploration are so refreshing to hear. Most of us need megaphones to hear that internal voice!
    Clearly, you should NOT be the one to help your Mom; just as clearly, there are innumerable resources out there (be it Boy Scouts or community colleges or senior centers) that ARE equipped to assist her through the ‘new tech’ process.
    My husband resisted, then felt guilty about his own mother’s request for the very same thing; he relented (against his better judgement) and, while she has mastered a few basics, she seems to ‘break’ her computer regularly—read that weekly! Now that she’s gotten a taste of email and Facebook photos of the kids and grand kids, she demands attention and repair as her due (in a passive/aggressive manner, of course, because she was also taught to never say, or accept, no for an answer.) She has also run up huge bills on Amazon for books that she swears she never ordered—and she’s on a very tight, fixed income!
    Blessings on all those parents and seniors who want so much to keep up with the ‘new’ devices in our world. But sometimes the best teachers are those who can keep an emotional distance to better serve them!

  18. I love this post, Mary. In hindsight I do believe I have heard that inner voice before but drowned it out with all the upbringing as well. Dang, you are one wise and strong woman. If only I could constantly remind myself to pause, listen and then act. Thank you for this great post!

  19. Hi mary,
    I have to say, my mom loves her computer. She does need help from time to time but keeps up with lots of family and friends on facebook and email and plays words with friends. We just got her an iPad for mother’s day and she enjoys that too.

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