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Do you know how to ask for help?

Asking was the topic of my most recent column. The reason: Much assistance is available if we let our needs be known.

Of course, asking presents potential problems, too. One challenge is to whom the question should be addressed. A recent column in the “New York Times” tells us that digital tools have confounded “pre-digital generations.”

That’s when I realized that I am one of those in a generation that I hadn’t known existed. Also, I know that there are potential risks, not only in not knowing who should receive my question but also in how it should be asked. The risk of asking is in knowing how to phrase the question so that the answer is useful. I learned about that challenge a few weeks ago.

My challenge was how to open my mailbox here at Mary’s Woods. There is a mailroom with tidy and safe mailboxes for each residence. To open each box requires an individual key. The box and the key are property of the U.S. Mail Service. (Without my mail service key I could receive no mail.) I needed to ask for help. Unfortunately, I did that badly.

I consider myself a polite and thoughtful person. I’m not a complainer. I work at being courteous.

With that in mind I made a phone call and asked: “What should I do if I can’t find my mailbox key?” The answer: “Make a thorough search of your apartment. In pockets? Drawers? On shelves?”

I did all that — I even had help with the search from friends and neighbors. No sofa cushion was left unturned. I made another phone call to report that the search didn’t work and asked what else I could do. The reply: “Call the front desk to report that your keys are missing.” That second request for help didn’t work either. Now as the days passed, I could see my mailbox overflowing. I tried again. Requests for the lost key went to various caregivers who were providing valuable assistance. Again, no results.

Finally I realized my major problem was asking the wrong question! What I wanted — and should have requested — was a key to open my mailbox, not a list of tasks I could (or should) undertake.

I hope this delay in receiving mail taught me a lesson — one that I’ll remember. What I wanted was a mailbox key — not instructions of what I could do. My politeness made me responsible for finding the key. I could have maintained my efforts to be polite by asking: “May I have a replacement mail box key?” and included a “please” and “thank you.”

After more days with no mail, the missing key was found. It had been in the coat pocket of a caregiver — on a coat that hadn’t been worn for 10 days or more. Both of us celebrated, and I was really delighted in receiving that bundle of mail, although most of it was bills.

Stories for Positive Aging is a semi-monthly column on senior issues written by Lake Oswego resident Ardis Stevenson, author of “Facing Age, Finding Answers” and “Dusty’s War.” She can be reached by email at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or by regular mail at 17440 Holy Names Drive, Lake Oswego, OR 97034.



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