“At least I’m still good for something.”

When we first moved my mother-in-law over 2,000 miles to live in an assisted living facility near us, we would have her over for dinner sometimes, take her to my youngest son’s basketball games, and take her to church and other outings.

At one dinner, a favorite family story came up. Some years ago, my mother-in-law inadvertently said something inappropriate, using a term with double meaning of which she was unaware. Everyone laughed because they knew she hadn’t meant it in the way people would take it today. The incongruity of such a thing coming from her made it all the more funny.

As we told the story to our kids, who had either not heard it before or had forgotten it, we all laughed, even my mother-in-law.

After the laughter died down, though, she quietly said, “At least I’m still good for something.”

I don’t know if anyone else heard her say it or caught the significance. But her sentence went like an arrow to my heart. She wasn’t complaining or blaming anyone, but she didn’t feel useful any more.

When we first moved her into assisted living, my husband told her, “You’ll never have to cook to clean again.” That sounded pretty good after 70 or years of those activities.

Her only hobby was reading, and she delighted in being able to read all day to her heart’s content. She had always been a homebody, and just going to meals three times a day with a room full of other people taxed her. When aides would knock on her door to see if she wanted to go see the musicians, the magicians, the church choir, or whomever, she politely declined.

I don’t think she was discontent with her circumstances. But we all want to feel we’re of use in the world. There is a feeling of satisfaction and pleasure when we’ve accomplished something, but she didn’t have anything to accomplish any more.

In “The Grace to Be Diminished,” Win Couchman wrote of turning 80 and having to give up driving, changing from their usual place in the balcony at church to a place on the main floor where they didn’t have to fear falling, her husband’s hearing loss and short-term memory loss which caused him to be “silent and isolated at social functions.” But the “diminishment” that particularly touched my heart was when “one of the women who coordinates the potlucks called me and said with winsome authority, ‘Win, enough already. You have been involved with these evenings for about twenty years now, I think. You have done your bit. We want you and Bob to be at every one, but you are not to bring any more food, you hear?'”

Only then did I realize how the slowness with which I function now, and the accompanying late afternoon fatigue, was beginning to color my anticipation with some dread.

Gladly I responded, “Okay.” It’s awkward to walk into someone’s house on potluck Saturdays empty-handed just as another couple arrives loaded with goodies. In that moment, I silently look to God for the grace to be diminished.

Win and her husband, and I am sure my mother-in-law as well, graciously accepted the decline that comes with age, knowing that:

 So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal (2 Corinthians 4:16-18).

Yet I think we should be careful not to diminish them unnecessarily.

In Atul Gawande’s book Being Mortal: Medicine and What Happens in the End, he writes of a woman who was responsible for her father’s care when he could no longer live alone. Yet her desire to keep him safe culminated in his living in a small room with nothing to do, “safe but empty of anything [he cared] about” (p. 109). 

What touched off this train of thought today was a section in Anthony Trollope’s The Last Chronicle of Barset, the sixth and last in his Chronicles of Barsetshire series. Mr. Harding was the main character in the first book, The Warden. Now, in the last book, he has become very old and increasingly feeble. He used to love to play the violincello, but can’t manage it any more. “He had encountered some failure in the performance of the slight clerical task allotted to him, and the dean had tenderly advised him to desist.” He loved going to the cathedral every day, to listen to the organ, read a theology book, or just walk around. But his feebleness caused his fearful housekeeper to write to his daughter, who came to encourage him that perhaps his days of walking alone to the cathedral might need to come to an end. He replied, “I do not like not going;—for who can say how often I may be able to go again? There is so little left, Susan,—so very little left.”

That line was heartbreaking—that there was so little left. Eventually Mr. Harding made peace with the fact that God had given him a good life and he had a better one to look forward to. He found the “grace to be diminished” and decline.

Another line in Gawande’s book says, “Making life meaningful in old age…requires more imagination and invention than making them merely safe does” (p. 137).

Hindsight is always so much clearer, of course, but I wish I had made my mother-in-law’s life more meaningful. When she was still able, I wish I had thought of small tasks she could do to help with meals. Cooking had been her love language of sorts. Though we thought we were honoring her by doing for her, perhaps she would have felt more useful with a way to contribute. I could have made a project of putting her photos in albums with her. I did ask about her early life—high school, how she met her husband, etc.–and even learned some things I hadn’t known before. But I wish I had done that more. Although our visiting almost every day and then bringing her home for her last years showed how much we regarded her, I wish I had often told her that we loved her and were happy to have the opportunity to care for her. Though she had intrinsic value as a being created in God’s image, we should have let her know more often that she was valued and important.

As I look ahead to growing older, a couple of passages especially comfort me. One is Isaiah 46:4: “even to your old age I am he, and to gray hairs I will carry you. I have made, and I will bear; I will carry and will save.”

Another is Psalm 92:12-15:

The righteous flourish like the palm tree
and grow like a cedar in Lebanon.
They are planted in the house of the Lord;
they flourish in the courts of our God.
They still bear fruit in old age;
they are ever full of sap and green,
to declare that the Lord is upright;
he is my rock, and there is no unrighteousness in him.

During my mother-in-law’s last years, when she slept most of the time, I wondered what kind of fruit she was bearing in that state. A few came to mind. Her godly life—not perfect, but steadily walking with God and seeking to serve Him the best she could in her circumstances. Her uncomplaining patience. Her taking things with humor. Her willingness to “go with the flow.” Her testimony of peace and joy before her caregivers.

I wish these things had come to mind when she wondered what she was “good for.” I trust her Lord’s, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant” assured her that He was able to use her in many ways. And I hope that these thoughts will remind me to let others know the ways God used them in my life.

(I often link up with some of these bloggers.)

48 thoughts on ““At least I’m still good for something.”

  1. Awww, this makes me cry! Walking through my dad’s assisted living, I tend to look at the … shells of people, many of them seem — and think that each of them had a vibrant life at one time. I think it’s so sad the way the elderly are often pushed off to the side, even if it’s well-meant. Even now sometimes my daughters will be discussing something together and I get that outsider feeling, because I know they’re laughing and discussing something I wouldn’t “get,” given my age. I appreciate this post a lot and love that God addressed the issue in His Word.

    • In my m-i-l’s last assisted living facility, the aides would round people up and place them in front of the TV in the common area to make it easier to keep an eye on them, rather than going room to room to check on them. :-/

      Win’s mention of diminishment has had me thinking a lot.

  2. Such a poignant post, Barbara. I wish that my mother’s last years under my care could have been different as well. Growing old is not for the faint of heart, is it?

    • My m-i-l used to joke “Getting old is for the birds.” 🙂 Everyone I’ve ever known who has taken care of parents has had regrets of some kind. It’s a loving but hard job. I think it’s like parenting in that we’ll never do it perfectly. But we do the best we can with God’s help.

  3. This is such a beautfiul post. I am very teary and emotional now. When my dad visited an “independent apartment” for seniors, the managers there made him feel very welcome, so he decided he wanted to live there. Only after he had moved in did we realize that it might not have been the best idea. Having to go to the dining room for his 3 meals was taxing for him, too, as it was for your mother-in-law. He was always afraid he’d miss a meal if he took a nap, etc. He couldn’t recoginze faces well, so he was always afraid he was offending someone if he didn’t recognize them. He had been so much happier in his former, typical apartment. I wish I had found more ways for him to feel useful. Thank you for those beautiful verses.

    • Thanks so much. It’s hard to know what’s best sometimes. It’s ideal if they can stay in their familiar homes, but there comes a point when they can’t live alone any more. And it’s rarely possible for family to move in with them. Seeing my mother-in-law’s experiences, I hope I don’t end up in a facility. But then, I don’t want to be a burden to my kids, either. It’s not easy any way we look at it, but God will guide and give us His grace.

  4. Barbara, this is so touching. Thank you for sharing your reading. It’s me who feels like I could have been more useful or thinking I could have done more for my parents before their passing. Did I care for them and their needs? I sure did. But to me it wasn’t good enough. Looking back now I do see that it was good enough. Blessings.

    • Everyone I have ever known who has cared for loved ones has expressed guilt or regret on some level. I think it’s because, like parenting, we can’t do it perfectly. But we do our best and trust God for grace.

  5. This is so touching. I have two elderly aunts who have been largely confined to their apartment for most of the past two years, with very few outings. They are both rather frail and one is also dealing with failing eyesight and hearing and limited mobility, and I know they struggle with feeling useful and that they have purpose. Thankfully they still have each other, but your beautiful post highlights the situation they are in. I know I’ll want to have purpose and meaning to my life even once I can no longer DO things. My prayer is that I always “see” the purpose and worth of every precious person – especially the elderly or disabled.

    • Thanks so much, Kym. I remember visiting an older lady from church years ago, and she wondered why God had left her here when she could no longer do many things. I wish I knew then what I know now. God always has ways we can show His love and reflect Him even when we can’t physically do as much. Amen especially to your last sentence. I want to do that, too.

  6. We all still want to have purpose regardless of our age or condition, don’t we? You tell this beautifully, Barbara. I agree with you that sometimes we rob people of that, in our eagerness to make them feel special and honored. It’s a fine line to draw. I’m watching this with my in-laws who are still very active in many ways in their 80s, yet we fuss at them for not calling us to take over certain tasks that we no longer think they can do. And I’m sure when I am in their shoes, I will learn even more about this tricky matter.

    I also love this statement you shared from The Grace to Be Diminished: “I silently look to God for the grace to be diminished.”

    • It’s a delicate balance sometimes. We want them to remain as independent as they can be for as long as they can. It’s hard when we need to gently insist that other measures need to be taken. My grandfather had a very hard time giving up driving. I am sure I will too, when that time comes. I’m sure I’ll need to silently look to God for grace for many things in the future.

  7. I absolutely loved this post! “Safe but empty” really struck me. Two older friends recently expressed how they felt of little value now so I think I understand somewhat as I myself age. I wish we could see the experience and wisdom we have to share with those younger as other cultures do…I’m working on changing that mindset in my world as I launch a ministry for mature adults this coming week! Pls pray for it….

    • That’s exciting about the new ministry! Yes, it’s sad our culture doesn’t value the wisdom of age as much as others do. Though they seem to value older people on an individual basis (grandparents, etc.) even if they don’t as a whole.

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  9. Almighty God lets us know what we are good for at any age. And old age might just well be the best time to hear his voice as the great noise of our younger world has since passed. God has plans for us — do we have time for him — that is the question.

  10. Thanks, Barbara! These are such helpful reflections. It’s so true – we do all want to feel that we have a purpose and a value. On Sunday some of us from my church are going to visit an elderly lady who is no longer able to attend, and this has given me some things to think about in preparation for that visit.

  11. Absolutely positively right! I’m 73, and one of the worst things about age is that people think you are so diminished. Well, we may be, but we don’t want to admit it! Let us do anything and everything that we still can!

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  13. Barbara, what a sweet post. It is hard to “diminish,” to find we can’t do what we used to do. C. S. Lewis wrote about finding new interests in aging. I pray God shows us how to live full lives with whatever capacity we have. You sound like you were a most loving daughter in law.

  14. Your post is both encouraging and a reminder. It is encouragement for seniors like me to continue to seek ways to be of service in the kingdom of God. It is a reminder not to let others feel unneeded or diminished. And, it is not only the elderly who need to be included. I have a 53 year-old daughter who is blind, suffers from epilepsy, and has mobility issues all stemming from a brain tumor when she was only 9. Thank you for reminding me to make her days more meaningful.

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  18. Such a thoughtful piece, Barbara, on having the grace to be diminished, but not to diminish them unnecessarily. It needs to be a balance of honoring their heart, recognizing their physical capabilities, and acknowledging their mental and emotional needs to feel useful.

  19. Wonderful article! I love the Scripture you quote that gives such a comfort and encouragement when we grow old. Thanks a lot for sharing!

  20. Barbara, this is so wonderful and touching. I am getting older with a mother in law in her 90’s who has been living in a nursery home for about a year. This gives me such compassion for what she is going through. Also how I will deal with diminishing gracefully.

  21. Oh Barbara … so many thoughts and emotions well up as I think about your words. In my mom’s later years, even before she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, she felt like she wasn’t needed anymore. The funny thing was, there were still so many people who loved her and enjoyed her company and needed her wisdom. There’s so much about what was going on in her mind during those days that I don’t … so much I wish I had done differently. And yet, I didn’t know to do it because I had never been down that road before. So many opportunities for giving grace, to ourselves and others.

  22. This is so thought-provoking, Barbara. I think we have to be cognisant that sometimes taking responsibility away doesn’t make people feel better, it makes them feel they are not needed. I try to always make everyone feel important, but I am going to be even more careful in future. Thank you so much for sharing this wonderful piece!

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