Help Is Not a Dirty Word

By Suzanne Mintz, National Family Caregivers Association

Why is it so hard to ask for help? What's a good response to the statement, "Call me if you need me?" How is it that despite the fact we are drowning in responsibility or are really confused about what our next step ought to be, we often respond "no thanks" when help is offered?

Asking for and accepting help is a complex issue. Obviously we first need to recognize that having some help can make a real difference to our loved one's well being and ours as well. Then we need to figure out what do I actually need help with and what kind of help am I willing to accept. There are of course the practical issues regarding paid help, versus friendly help. If this just sounds like more work, another list of things to do, know that it doesn't have to be an overwhelming task, but rather just a way to organize thoughts and information you may already have.

Having help can restore your equilibrium because removing some of the responsibility from your shoulders will lessen your stress. It will also enable you to be a more peaceful and effective caregiver because you won't feel so much alone, and that's got to make you a happier and hopefully healthier person. It is precisely because you do care that getting some help when you need it is important.

Not all family caregivers need help of course. If your husband is relatively independent despite his disability, then your caregiving responsibilities may well be very manageable and not an issue of concern at this time. But for those of us that need to help loved ones with personal care on a daily basis, or are just feeling generally overwhelmed by caregiving issues, having help can make a big difference.

There are multiple benefits to getting help. Here are a few:

  • It can lessen your sense of isolation knowing that other people have an idea of what you are dealing with and are willing to be there for you when needed.
  • It can move the dial on your "worry meter" down to a safe level.
  • It can encourage your loved one to be more independent.
  • It can give you more confidence in your ability to manage your caregiving responsibilities.
  • It can increase your ability to think creatively and expand the options you now have available to you.

What prevents us from reaching out or letting others in? I think it has a lot to do with pride because in addition to helping us recognize our accomplishments and encouraging us to persevere, pride can get in the way of relationships and close us off from others. Pride swells our hearts when our children bring home a report card filled with As, and pride in ourselves is part of the reward for learning a new computer program or losing those five pounds that we gained last Christmas. But pride can get in the way when it is the cause of our refusing to apologize to a friend for a hurtful act, or when it won't let us admit we made a bad decision. In the context of caregiving, pride can prolong the time we struggle before we seek assistance, and it can get in the way of accepting help even when it is sincerely offered and very concrete. For men this can be a particular problem, since men of course are always supposed to be strong and silent in the face of adversity.

As Americans we are brought up to be fiercely independent and for many of us, very private about our personal lives too. Asking for help forces us to admit we can't do everything ourselves and necessitates that we peel away some of the layers that protect our private lives from public view. These are not easy things to do. They take time, and doing them often embarrasses us. But once we work through our pride, or at least the portion of it that impacts our willingness to ask for and receive assistance, our lives, and those of our loved ones can be more enjoyable, less scary, and a great deal safer.

It's good to remember that in many circumstances it isn't only our pride that must be dealt with. Your husband may be adamant about not wanting someone else to touch his genitals. Your children may repeatedly dissuade you from letting others know the true nature of changes that are occurring. Pride is about self-image, and taking steps that will potentially alter your self-image and also the image you, your loved one, and your family project to the world is a big deal. So much of caregiving occurs behind the closed doors of bedrooms and bathrooms. No wonder we are hesitant to ask for help.

What we need to understand is that there all sorts of ways that other people can help without having to let them see the most private details of our caregiving. In other cases of course, it is help with those personal details that we need the most. Somewhere along the line we have to strike a balance between independence and practicality.

If you can find even one person or one service that can reduce your regular workload by either taking over all or part of one of your daily or weekly chores, you'll have more time for your caregiving, and less stress bearing down on you. If you can find a person or service that can help with your specific caregiving responsibilities, you'll be in a better position to meet your non-caregiving responsibilities. Finding help is often difficult for emotional, financial, and geographic reasons, but it can make a big difference in your ability to be an effective caregiver; it can make a big difference in your loved one's well being, and it can make a difference in your own well being and that of other family members as well. It's worth the effort.

This article is excerpted from Suzanne Mintz's forthcoming book, Love Honor and Value: A Family Caregiver Writes about the Choices and Challenges of Caregiving, published by Capital Books and available in September 2002. See page 16 for more information.

©2007 National Family Caregivers Association. All Rights Reserved.


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