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Written by: Mary Brintnall-Peterson, Ph.D., MBP Consulting, LLC, Professor Emeritus, UW-Extension & Caregiver

(Second article in three-part series on caregiver helplessness.)

Knowing that I can’t be the only caregiver feeling helpless, I researched the topic to better understand the emotions associated with helplessness and to garner coping strategies.  During my exploration process I was surprised at what I found, and didn’t realize that the literature is divided into three types of helplessness.  I’ll be addressing each one separately in this helplessness series including:

  1. Are you feeling helpless as a caregiver? The first article discusses the emotions and physical distress a caregiver experiences when there is nothing, they can do to change the situation of their care receiver.
  2. Are you making your care receiver feel helpless? The second article discusses how caregivers enable their care receiver making them dependent and possibility feeling helpless.
  3. What is “learned helplessness?” The third article discusses a condition in which caregivers and care receivers learn to be helpless when exposed to stressful situations repeatedly.

This article is the second in the helplessness series and explores how a caregiver knowingly or not enables their care receiver to become dependent. Making a care receiver helpless isn’t done intentionally as all caregivers want their care receiver to be self-sufficient.  Care receivers become helpless when the caregiver is too helpful!  Too helpful you ask?  Yes, typically caregivers are individuals who want to help and are nurturing people. We take on tasks and responsibilities which make us feel useful, our self-worth increases and we gain a sense of control in our life.

I thought about the tasks and responsibilities I do for my son, who has colon cancer, and whether or not I was making him helpless. I have enabled him to become somewhat helpless or maybe lazy as I get his meds, make his meals, do his laundry, and keep the household going, etc.  He is perfectly able to do these things on his own and does when I ask him to or he steps in when I haven’t done it for him. In my defense, I realize my standards for housekeeping are different than his and I do take comfort in knowing he is eating better when I am with him.

Is what I’m doing harmful to him and is he becoming dependent on me? The literature provides some questions to ask yourself or discuss with your care receiver. They provide insight into the question, are you doing too much.

  1. Are you a know-it-all? Do you need to be in control of everything for your care receiver and don’t take into account what the caregiver wants and what he/she is capable of doing? Another piece of this is thinking you know what is best for the care receiver and then making it happen.
  2. Do you try to please everyone except yourself? Do you go out of your way to do things so the care receiver and other family members aren’t upset even if you don’t think it’s the best thing to do? For example, a family member wants you to bring your husband to dinner at their house. You know it’s difficult for your husband to get into the car, he won’t feel comfortable eating in their dining room because he spills things and, he just doesn’t want to go. In order to keep the peace, you convince him to go rather than suggesting they bring dinner to your house. This is an example of pleasing others versus doing what you know is better for your husband.
  3. Do you know what your care receiver is thinking and reading his/her mind? Do you think for the care receiver because it’s quicker than involving him/her, plus you get the outcome you want?
  4. Do you gain fulfillment from your care receiver needing you? Do you have a need to be needed? Do you gain a sense of security or importance from the care receiver needing you? Do you need others to recognize what you are doing?
  5. Do you refuse letting the care receiver help you? Regardless of the care receiver’s condition, they can still share gestures of appreciation and support. There might also be something they can do for you such as paying bills, making a meal, rubbing your back or even teaching you something. My son has been helping me with my golf game on his good days. Letting the care receiver help when possible strengthens your commitment to each other.
  6. Have you communicated with your care receiver to identify their needs and how you can help him/her? Doing tasks and responsibilities without a conversation with the care receiver is taking away decisions and opportunities from the care receiver. You might be doing something they want and could do for themselves. You could also be taking away their independence bit by bit. It is their life and they need to be involved in deciding how it will be played out.

These questions opened my eyes as to the ways I was taking away my son’s independence so I decided to talk with him about my caregiving.  He told me I was doing what he needed me to do and appreciated what I was doing for him. He also said there were times when I did too much, but he would continue to let me know when that was happening. Armed with this new information I decided to identify things he could do and ask him more often to do things for us. Little things like taking out the garage, helping with meals, helping put groceries away, going for walks together, paying bills, ordering his drugs, etc. Regardless of what he does, the truth is I get satisfaction in doing for him, it gives me a purpose, plus I have something to do while living with him.  So, the question to answer is—Is my doing for my son hurting or helping him?  The response is both yes and no! I need to focus on doing the things he cannot do for himself like changing his bandages. On the tasks or responsibilities, he can do himself (ordering, organizing, and tracking meds, fixing nutritional meals, etc.) I need to have him do them more often so we both know he can do them on his own if I wasn’t here. One goal we both have is to make him self-sufficient, so I can return home and he can return to somewhat of a normal life.

The reality is that many caregivers probably sometime in their caregiver journey have made their care receiver feel helpless. What is key is being aware of what you are doing and if it is decreasing the care receiver’s independence. With this awareness create a plan to engage your care receiver as much as possible. Another fact to keep in mind is if the cancer and other chronic illnesses your caregiver has, make him/her less independent you will assume more caregiver tasks and responsibilities. Don’t wear yourself out when he/she is able to do things themselves, as you may need to take on more down the road.


Cherry, K. (2020, June 7). What Is Learned Helplessness and Why Does it Happen? Retrieved June 15, 2020, from Verywell Mind.

Davis, J. L. (2003, May 13). Caregivers Feel Helpless, Need Help. Retrieved May 15, 2020, from ebMD.

Denholm, D. B. (2012, August 12). When Caregivers Care Too Much. Retrieved May 9, 2020, from Psychology Today.

Ghose, M. (2013, January 30). When it Comes to Caretaking and Helplessness, Enabling is Disabling. Retrieved May 14, 2020, from Good Therapy.

Joan K. Monin, R. S. (2009, September). Interpersonal Effects of Suffering in Older Adult Caregiving Relationships. Retrieved May 9, 2020, from National Institute of Health.

Swartz, A. (2017, September 25). Caregiving with Confidence: The Dangers of Caring Too Much. Retrieved May 9, 2020, from Cancer Today.