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Declining offers for help can help keep you strong while aging

The mantra for staying strong and able as

The mantra for staying strong and able as you age comes down to: Do what you can for yourself if you can do it. Credit: Getty Images / RyanJLane

“Here, let me help you with that,” the man offered, as I walked out of the grocery store lugging three bags of groceries.

“Thank you, but I’m fine,” I replied, walking toward my car. Transferring the bag in one hand to my other arm, I got the keys out, unlocked the car door, and put the bags in the back seat. It was no trouble at all. But had I accepted the stranger’s thoughtful offer, it might have been the start of trouble down the road.

Had I accepted help every time it was offered, it would make me less able — and less likely — to do the same chores for myself.

Here’s an example: I buy food for my two dogs in a 50-pound bag. At one time, I always had someone from the store unload the bag onto the car’s back seat, where it would wait until a neighbor could carry it for me into the house, sometimes until the next morning. Then, one day, I asked myself: Why was I always waiting for a neighbor to carry the bag inside when I, in fact, lift weights once or twice a week at the gym? Why didn’t I ever try to carry that 50 pounds into the house myself?

So I pulled the bag out and carried it inside. Yes, that first time was awkward. A bag of dog food is floppy, the contents slide around inside the packaging, and it takes effort to climb up the three porch steps, balance the bag on one knee while opening the door, and gently place it inside. But it was doable. Since then, I have never had to ask for anyone’s help in getting my bag of dog food inside the house.

Seniors sometimes even ask for help because it’s so much easier to have another person do a chore. I remember seeing a woman in the parking area of a trailhead for a dirt mountain biking trail, who looked helplessly at the man she was with, rather than lifting the bike to put it inside the hatch of her vehicle. I wondered if perhaps she was too weak to do it for herself, but then saw her lift the bike and remove it from the hatch to do a quick spin around the parking area while the man went to the restroom. She obviously just wanted him to do it for her.

Which leads to another aspect of training yourself to stay able as you age. It isn’t limited to refusing offers of help from others. It’s also doing awkward or difficult chores yourself rather than taking an easy way out by asking others to do them for you.

However, the cardinal rule is to figure out what is still safe for you to do, and what may now pose a risk.

At one time, every spring, I would climb up a ladder several times, each time carrying a 20- or 30-pound potted plant hanging from a decorative rope, and place each plant on one of the hooks attached to the eve of my carport. The spider plants and spreading coleus were always a cheerful sight. Then one year, I dropped a heavy plant. The expensive ceramic container shattered when it hit the ground. The ladder swayed. I had to steady myself on the carport’s eve. At that moment, I had to reluctantly realize that it was no longer safe for me to hang those plants myself. Each year since, I’ve asked a neighbor to do it.

The mantra for staying strong and able as you age comes down to: Do what you can for yourself if you can do it. If it’s too much for you to do, or if it poses a risk, let someone else do it instead.

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