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Feeling useful integral to emotional health

Carol Bradley Bursack, Minding Our Elders columnist

Dear Carol: My dad suffers from the effects of poorly controlled diabetes. He's finally trying to follow the advice his doctors have given him which is helping some, but he's forgetful. He has developed problems with his feet, so I watch his diet and pills.

Even when Dad's feeling fairly well physically, though, he seems vaguely depressed. He claims to be happy enough living with our family, but he says that he's not contributing anything. Dad used to be very physical and now there are so many things he can't do. I know that he gets bored, but I wish he could just accept that he doesn't have to do more. How can I help him feel better about himself? — Meghan

Dear Meghan: Your love for your dad comes through clearly. You just need to put yourself in his place and realize that contributing helps him maintain his dignity. Finding tasks for your dad and helping him develop hobbies suited to his health and interest should help immensely.

When I was young, my grandmother came to live with us. Rheumatoid arthritis had damaged all of her joints and her hands had curled in on themselves. Grandma insisted that she would do the breakfast dishes each morning. I felt terrible at first because I knew that any of us could have quickly cleaned up the kitchen. Mom explained to me that Grandma wanted to do this because it made her feel useful. I understood Mom's explanation then as well as a pre-teen could, but I understand it far better now. Perhaps your dad could benefit from his own version of Grandma's dishwashing.

Can he do some light yard work? Take a small risk and ask him to do some carefully selected work outside. You might also save fairly simple fix-it jobs for him so that he can feel the accomplishment of making something whole again. Asking him to show you how to do something is also good. He has a lifetime of knowledge to share so having the family recognize that would be wonderful for you all.

Finding the right mix won't be easy, because if you ask your dad to do something that he can no longer handle he may feel as if he is letting you down. Something as simple as helping with the laundry and taking care of the trash can legitimately help you and may make him feel better.

Your dad might also benefit from a diversion. You could begin by mentioning to your dad that you'd love some birds in the backyard but you don't have time to take care of their needs. Ask him if he'd be willing to help you set up a feeder in the backyard and then take over feeding the birds for you.

You could take that further and ask him if he would be able to help the family care for a pet bird or even a small dog or a cat. Adopting an older pet is something that everyone could feel good about, and older pets are often easier to handle than very young ones so your dad could help out quite a bit.

Bird feeding and/or pets aren't for everyone. I'm simply offering a springboard to help you develop ideas of your own that suit your family life as well as your dad's interests.

In addition, you may want to look into activities at a local senior center to see if he can be involved in more social interaction with peers. Living with younger generations can be fun, but many seniors need and appreciate contact with others of their generation, as well.

Carol Bradley Bursack is the author of a support book on caregiving and runs a website supporting caregivers at She can be reached at