Here’s a topic that’s been lately in the psychological press. My information comes from Tuesday’s Science section of the NY Times. The article, entitled The Pathological Altruist Gives Till Someone Hurts, speaks about helpfulness going too far. It speaks about selflessness going too far as well. The example of helpfulness going too far here is related to performing surgeries and other invasive procedures on patients who are near death or otherwise incompetent.
Of course my association is to Alzheimer’s disease patients or those suffering from other dementias. What is the right thing to do if a loved one incurs a stroke or heart attack and the physician recommends a spinal tap or open heart surgery? Do we caregivers always follow what the surgeon recommends because “there’s always hope?” It is so important for families to discuss these matters when everyone is well. Then a medical proxy can be drawn up that details in advance what the person desires for his/her end of life .
If there is no such document or if there hasn’t been such a discussion, the other half of this article on helpfulness going to far comes into the discussion. The example in the article talks about people who hoard animals, women who continue to live with abusive husbands or men who tolerate alcoholic wives. In my experience with people I have met and interviewed in caregiver groups, it also can apply to those who continue to care for their demented spouses at home, by themselves, until they become ill or even die. A lifetime builds up behaviors that are so difficult to change, even when the circumstances lead to the severe problems for the caregiver. That’s why it is so important to belong to a caregiver group, to hear how the other members handle similar situations, to learn to follow the Alcoholics Anonymous motto which asks for our Higher Power’s assistance in changing what we can change, accepting what we cannot change and in knowing the difference.