HELP LINE: Remember to be responsible for you

“I’M RESPONSIBLE FOR me,” she said.

Sounds simple enough, huh? Agreed.

Most genuinely profound observations are simple enough.

This particular “genuinely profound observation” came from an 83-year-old gal who left me a voice mail, something to the effect of “… seniors need to know their own meds.”

“OK,” I thought to myself. “Hard to argue with that.”

But I dutifully returned her call, and I’m glad I did, because I ended up on the phone with a very sharp and articulate 83-year-old.

OK, agreed: There are plenty of very sharp and articulate 83-year-olds knocking around, but this particular gal told me an amazing story.

A lot of it had to do with the high points of her lifelong medical history, which wasn’t actually as boring as it sounds, nor was it (as these things often are) a painful recitation of this disaster to that catastrophe to some other medical/physiological assault.

Rather, it was simply a description of how she came to say, “I’m responsible for me.”

I’ll spare you the history, but the most recent chapter had to do with the fact that she had to learn about her own prescription medications. Specifically (for her) what they looked like — you know, the oblong yellow one and the blue round one, etc. You get it.

So, during a fairly recent hospitalization, a pleasant and compassionate nurse brought her “regular” meds to her — except they weren’t.

They didn’t look “right” or familiar to our gal, so she spoke up: “Those aren’t right.”

What ensued, apparently, was a debate: “Yes, they are.” “No, they’re not.” “Yes, they are.”

And apparently, “No, they’re not” prevailed, because the nurse went back and double-checked our gal’s records.

Guess what? No, they weren’t. A mistake had been made.

The story that was told to me wasn’t resentful of the nurse, or the hospital, or the medical establishment.

It was, to her, an honest mistake — and, by the way, a mistake that was made again, a couple of days later.

It simply pointed out, to her, that she was darned glad that she’d paid attention to what her meds actually looked like (and, by the way, what they were and what they did), so a couple of unhappy mistakes were avoided.

“I just know that I’m responsible for me” was her summation. And it was her summation that stuck with me.

I’m responsible for me. Yeah, you are. So am I. So is everybody else. And that’s a very easy thing to forget.

It’s very easy, in the world of medicine, where the whole idea is that people are supposed to be taking care of us. Smart, educated, experienced people who we need to trust.

We place ourselves in their hands and say (more or less), “I trust you, so please do what you do,” knowing full well that most of us don’t have the foggiest idea of exactly what they do or how they do it.

We decide to trust — and, within the bounds of common sense, rightfully so.

But it isn’t just medicine. It could be finances, insurance, real estate, car repairs or advice.

We decide to trust, based on experience or conspicuously framed degrees or reputation or advice or desperation, but decide we do. We must.

So, am I suggesting that we stop trusting? Hardly. What real choice do we have?

But I am suggesting there’s a huge difference between trust and abdication, at least to me. The former has to do with a conscious decision based on confidence. The latter has to do with dependence, surrender and weakness: You be responsible for me.

Mercifully, most of us come through whatever it is relatively unscathed. Mercifully. And most of us can think of plenty of scenarios (particularly medical scenarios) in which we (or the “patient”) are incapable of effectively participating. But if we consider life on a larger scale, how often do we just reflexively do that?

It seems like everything has become so complicated. So technical. So legalistic. We just throw up our arms and say, “Whatever. Just fix it.”

Because we don’t know. How can we possibly know everything?

We can’t. I certainly don’t. But I can pay attention. I can listen and I can ask questions and I can speak up when something doesn’t make sense to me.

Or I can just sleepwalk my way through my life, blissfully surrendering my life to whomever about whatever, while I dither about and bemoan the vicissitudes, afraid to confess that I don’t know everything “they” know.

Of course I don’t. But I’m not stupid. I can listen and I can ask questions and I can learn and I can … be responsible for me.

She’s right.

I’m glad I called.


Mark Harvey is director of Clallam/Jefferson Senior Information &Assistance, which operates through the Olympic Area Agency on Aging. He is also a member of the Community Advocates for Rural Elders partnership. He can be reached at 360-452-3221 (Port Angeles-Sequim), 360-385-2552 (Jefferson County) or 360-374-9496 (West End), or by emailing

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