Self Caring

How to Ask for Caregiving Help

Last updated:

May 12, 2010
Peanut Butter Bon Bon
Image by rox sm used under the creative commons attribution share alike license.

People love to help. Caregivers need help. It's an ideal peanut-butter-and-jelly (or, as I prefer to think of it, peanut-butter-and-chocolate) symbiosis of two human impulses. So what's the stumbling block? The short answer: The person who needs the help usually has to ask for it -- and in a way that may feel uncomfortable.

Asking for help is hard.

I'm not saying that every caregiver has an army of helpers standing by awaiting a nod. I know full well that families are scattered, or feuding, or oblivious. But willing and able assistance is out there, whether family or friends, neighbors, community members, local resources, and services for hire. Don't be your own worst enemy in blocking yourself from accessing it.

Unfortunately, asking for help can make us feel incompetent, needy, or uncomfortably indebted. Givers, especially (caregivers, women), seem to hate to be cast as "takers."

In her insightful new book They're Your Parents, Too: How Siblings Can Survive Their Parents' Aging Without Driving Each Other Crazy, Francine Russo points out a few other "fantasies" that family caregivers often have about getting help (which prevent them from getting it!):

  1. "I shouldn't have to ask."

    Unfortunately, most of us aren't born mind readers. Russo points out another destructive dynamic that may also be at work: "Our premise may be: If you were a good person, good son, good -- fill in the blank -- you'd automatically know the right thing to do."

  2. "Help is worth less if I ask for it."

    Not so, says Russo. A sibling's (or adult child's) help isn't worth less if it's requested rather than volunteered. Help is help.

  3. "If I ask, he might say no."

    Even if someone refuses a request, you're not any worse off for having tried. Nor is it necessarily a reasonable interpretation (as many caregivers told Russo) that a "˜no' means something hurtful, or that the other person doesn't care about the asker or the care receiver. "He might be having a crisis in his life. He might have difficulty doing this particular thing but be willing to do other things," she says.

  4. "I can't ask for myself."

    Here's a more subconscious one: Maybe you want a sibling to be more in touch because you're lonely or stressed. Or maybe it's something overt, like needing relief so you can take a walk. These things indirectly affect your care receiver's quality of life -- and that's just as critical as direct help. But if you don't see it that way, you may feel it's selfish or wrong to ask, and needlessly go without.

To Russo's great list, I'd add a few more help-blockers:

  1. "I don't want to "burn out" my helpers by asking until I really need it."

    Starting early better staves off your own burnout. Don't wait til all heck breaks loose.

  2. "Nobody else can do it as well as me."

    Even if that were true, it's a recipe for disaster. Letting others in actually shows you're in control -- you're finding solutions for the big-picture of best care. Just don't micromanage after you delegate. Nothing makes a helper want to say "no" next time like being followed around and criticized.

  3. "I hate to bother anyone."

    If people can help, they will (it feels good to help) and if they can't, they'll say so. Give them the option instead of deciding for them.

  4. "They say they'll help, but never follow through."

    Be specific: Instead of simply asking for help, ask for commitments for particular tasks -- and get dates and times.

  5. "I hate to feel beholden to anyone."

    So say thanks with a card, flowers, or sweets. Let the person know you'll eventually be ready to help him or her. Or to pay it forward and help someone else in their honor. Mostly though, remember the first line of this post: People like to help.

That's been my experience. Yours??