Recently a dear friend of mine, an attorney, talked to me about a case of elder abuse she encountered. Elders are abused because they are vulnerable. This is not a dissimilar to the situation we can find ourselves in when we are suddenly sick or injured.

  The story my friend told me started me thinking. What can we do to lessen the likelihood that we will be abused when we are vulnerable?

People abuse other people. We might not want to think that someone will abuse us when we are vulnerable but it happens all the time. There are laws and penalties for abusing elders or others who are helpless. The laws are necessary and helpful but don't often function as a deterrent. And the laws are enforced after the abuse has already happened. No crime, no enforcement.

In the case my friend told me about, a family member convinced a confused, vulnerable woman to put all her money in a place where he had access to it and then he stole it. That's a clear case of abuse, a crime that is punishable, but even if this family member is caught and convicted the money the woman needs to live on is still gone. It is unlikely that she will get it back.

If we are injured, ill, unable to care for ourselves or confused, we depend on other people to help us. We need to know that we can rely on others and that we have some protection against mistreatment. Building this reliability is pretty hard to do when we wait until we need it. Starting now is easier.

People, even people we know and love, are more likely to act unwisely, perhaps even to abuse us or be unkind to us, when they are isolated and under pressure. Isolation and pressure can cause human beings to become caught in circular thinking - justifying behaviors that they might not otherwise engage in. Leaving the care of someone who is ill, injured, or confused in the hands of one person alone is not wise.

We function more coherently and responsibly when we are not isolated and are part of a group. We are built for it. We are wired to be social animals and to respond to social visibility. There is oversight and restraint built into the relationship if it occurs in a context that includes other people. Even the kindest person is less likely to cause harm if they have other people to share the stress of daily life and if their actions are visible. When we are ill or injured the stress on the people caring for us can increase exponentially. Twenty-four/seven caregiving is very difficult work. If you see someone you know trying to do it without support, don't wait. Lend a hand now.

If I am an integral part of a functioning social system - an extended family, a religious institution, a neighborhood, a charitable organization in which I regularly volunteer time - before I am ill or injured, I am visible. Then when I need it, what people do to and for me is also visible and there are more people able and willing to help.

A viable extended network of relationships doesn't happen automatically however. This network is built up from years of interacting with other people, of our giving of our own kindness and compassion. It is a life-long endeavor. Busy with our careers and lives, we may think, that we have the luxury of waiting to build up a network of relationships, that we are just too busy to fit it in. But illness and injury strike when we least expect them. If we don't build a network of relationships now, we are not likely to have them when we need them.

helping hands

When I see people in the rehabilitation center, I see people who have extended loving support and people who don't. The extended support often comes from families, but I also routinely see it come from other areas in a person's life, from a religious affiliation, from neighbors, from a civic organization the injured person has been involved with. The common denominator in all cases, even the family, is that the injured person has given of himself, has been involved in open-heartedly helping other people over the years.

I also see the trust the injured person feels in his extended support and the impact that trust has on his well-being. When the injured person is secure in knowing that there is support, support he has earned through years of helping and participating with others, he can alleviate his fear of helplessness and vulnerability and deepen his focus on doing what is necessary to deal effectively with the condition he faces.

About the Author

Alison Bonds Shapiro

Alison Bonds Shapiro, M.B.A., works with stroke survivors and their families, and is the author of Healing into Possibility: the Transformational Lessons of a Stroke.

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