No good deed goes unpunished, say the cynics. But that’s one book. Our Book says you are your brother’s keeper. Or at minimum it poses that infamous rhetorical question: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Genesis 4:9). There isn’t any way out of this on an ethical basis, but there is more than one way around it. If the time spent on your neighbour is impinging on your ability to do good for others, including your own family, you need to gently disengage. First you must sit down and have a heart-to-heart with her.
It is a truism, but money often rears its ugly head in these situations. The naturally frugal habits of a lifetime nurtured in the Depression can lead to non-essential penny- pinching. A lifetime of having a husband, son or brother to take care of maintenance can make an elderly woman unnecessarily dependent. You need to ascertain this, though it is not easy to ask outright if your neighbour’s budget can cover basic maintenance. A frank conversation over a cup of tea might elicit the response you require. Alternatively, you may find that it is the companionship you are offering that is precious to her, above and beyond the yard work.
Once you have determined whether the issue is financial, social or simply a habit of dependence, you can tactfully help her find her own solution.
If the need is companionship, check whether your church has a seniors, visiting team. If money is an issue, perhaps the youth group is seeking projects. Beyond your church, there are social service agencies that will help with everything from telephone visiting to yard work. Many are available free to seniors. This will take a bit of research, but remember: an hour or two now will save a lot of snow shovelling later. You will also have given your neighbour the means and tools to remain independent longer. Definitely a fair exchange.
What is the motivation to follow through on all these requests? What is the motivation to deny them? Some people are motivated by the need to be needed and will do everything humanly possible. But should the elderly neighbour fail to offer unfailing gratitude, the needy servant will become angry, resentful and passive-aggressive.
Others are motivated by a strong need to avoid extra commitments, to free up as much time for themselves as possible. Reasoning that our 40-hour workweek and family commitments are plenty to give to others, we can be excessively protective of our time.
Here’s a test: if my neighbour becomes irate the first time I tell her that I can’t do something for her, I know this relationship has become unhealthy. It needs to be remedied with some honest dialogue. I would explain I have other responsibilities — family, work, friends, discipleship — and though I am eager and delighted to help, I simply cannot respond every time she needs me.
On the other hand, if she completely understands, I will know this is a healthy relationship: one based on compassion, self-respect and maturity.
My experience in ministry and in life is that 99 percent of the time these requests are reasonable and a joy to fulfil. The elderly neighbour almost always understands the limitations of my time and energy.
The Gospels tell us that when we meet a person in need, we often meet Jesus. That is not an invitation to a one-way, needy, resentful relationship. There is grace in giving with no expectation of response. By spending quality time with the elderly, we are reminded of our own fragility. Playing no small part in the motivation behind avoiding these requests is the desire to avoid facing our own need.
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