Living With Polio

Whose Life Is It, Anyway?

Nancy Baldwin Carter, BA, M Ed Psych, Omaha, Nebraska is a polio survivor, a writer, and is founder and former director of Nebraska Polio Survivors Association.

My friend Mary called with what she termed a dilemma: She has a friend whose mother won’t take a bath. “It’s been three months,” she said. “The woman refuses to bathe. Her daughter promises her a night out at her favorite restaurant if she’ll clean up, but she won’t do it.”

“What do you mean, ‘so’? She stinks. She’s a health hazard.”
“A health hazard? To whom? Is putrid stench catching?”
“She’s dirty. Maybe she could die from her own filth, I don’t know.”

“Good for her! I love it when people have creative ideas about their own death, don’t you? How many folks do you know who have died from personal malodorousness? Here’s an inventive mother with spunk!”

“Stop joking around. This is serious. She shouldn’t be allowed to go without bathing. I’m telling you—she reeks!”
“What you mean is her gaminess repulses her daughter.”
“Well, it certainly does.”

“Is she incompetent? Under guardianship?”
“Does she live with others where there are covenants about bathing?”
“No. She lives alone.”
“Does she have a job that has ‘offensiveness’ rules?”
“She’s retired.”
“Then leave the poor soul alone. If she wants to stink, let her stink.”

“She’s not going to have a friend left.”
“If that’s true, then she has a choice to make, doesn’t she. Either she hops into the tub before getting together with pals—or she doesn’t. But this is for sure: I ain’t makin’ that decision for her.”

When did this country turn into such a nation of do-gooders? Outright busybodies? When did it become O.K. to make other people’s personal business our business? What is wrong with us!

Of course we want to offer a hand to those who ask for assistance. We want to be there for the disabled woman who’s seeking an affordable power chair so she can get to her doctor’s office or to the mall. We want to be on call for the elderly man who’s looking for someone to change the sheets on his bed and vacuum his carpet. We even want to give aid to a mother who requests help taking a bath.

I’m talking about people who are mentally alert and quite capable of making up their minds. They know what they need—and what they want. Some may simply require a little outside help. What they do NOT need are wildly opinionated, totally uninvited pushy “supporters” who believe they have the right to determine how others should live. If individuals happen to choose a path detrimental to themselves, fully cognizant of the consequences, why should it be up to any of us to force them onto a different route?

What’s next? How big a leap is it for some self-appointed saint to decide the solution for a guy requesting help changing his sheets is to pack him up and trot him off to a nursing facility? Do we have a prayer of convincing such meddlers that health care changes now encourage our having the freedom to get the help we want and need, even in our own homes?

Let’s be sure independent living involves independence.

Oh, by the way—Mary called back. Things changed with her stubborn friend’s stubborn mom. Once everyone got off her back, she grabbed a bar of soap, filled the tub for a steamy, bubbly bath, and started soaking. Hmm…

All columns originally published by Post-Polio Health International (

Tags for this article:
Independent Living
Mental Health