Monday, October 19, 2009

How to Get Help

Few things can make us feel crazier
than expecting something from someone
who has nothing to give.
— Melody Beattie

Asking for help is a primary skill for successful caregiving, and yet for many of us, asking for help isn’t easy. Why is that? What makes it so hard? Asking for help is counter-cultural. We are weaned on the message that going it alone is a sign of strength. Raised to be proud of our fortitude, we stoically forge ahead. Welcome to The Lone Ranger Syndrome. It weakens the fabric of relationships at home and at work. And in caregiving, this handicap does immeasurable damage to a caregiver’s effectiveness.

When you ask for help, you acknowledge a simple fact: We are each a part of a greater whole: a family, a community and a world. Back in the 1970's, we noticed a growing awareness of the ecology in which we live. Heightened ecological awareness teaches us what we can now begin to learn in caregiving—we are all interconnected. Given half a chance, our interconnection during caregiving can be one of our greatest assets.

Begin asking for help, and you’ll learn something startling. Requesting help can even be empowering. How can this be? Shakti Gawain, a personal development pioneer, observes that “You create your opportunities by asking for them.” When you open yourself to the possibility of asking for help, you gain access to a world of solutions you would never have accessed alone. By the options that you entertain, you are made resilient. By the wisdom that you find, you are made stronger. Others’ respect for you deepens and your bond with them grows. Now let’s look at how this specifically applies to building a caregiving team.

Conflicting commitments can surface when you have an intuition that something is amiss with your elder, but you don’t feel confident about bringing it up with an aide, nurse or doctor. On the one hand, you want to do the best for your elder, be a competent caregiver, and/or nip in the bud a potentially dangerous situation. On the other hand, you may be afraid of looking stupid, diminishing your authority, damaging your relationship with the professionals, or seeming intrusive to your elder or other family members. Inner conflict breeds a double bind.

In the best of all possible worlds, you and the professionals are on the same team, protecting and caring for your elder. The way you develop this consultative team, even when you’re unsure of an exact problem, is by stepping forward and asking questions. You will learn soon enough which individuals are open to working with you and which ones are less than cooperative. That alone is good information to have.

If the doctor isn’t willing to answer your questions, get a new doctor. Nurses and aides vary depending on their experience, personality and degree of dedication. The good ones will welcome your questions. You are another pair of eyes in your elder’s medical picture. You can help them. To show yourself as a potential healthcare partner, you’re going to have to speak up, but in the right way. How successful you are has everything to do with the way you speak up. We’ll get to that in a minute.

Conflicting commitments can also surface when you are faced with asking for help from family members. Maybe your elder won’t listen to you. Maybe you’re so exhausted from laundry and medical phone calls that you don’t have time to just sit with your elder. You might ask someone you know to pitch in, a family member or a friend, but you are struggling with how to ask. Yes, how you ask determines your success.

Much of the way these conversations go also depends on your history together. If you have healthy relations, the worst you risk is that they will say “No.” But what if relations are less than healthy?
Functional families are rare. Most families have some degree of imbalance of power, inability to communicate well, or simply a lack of kindness. Against that backdrop comes your conflict. On the one hand, you may be afraid of seeming weak, as though you’re not up to the job. They may say “No,” or worse, be nasty or angry with you for asking. On the other hand, coming smack up against those fears and pushing you forward is your commitment to your elder and your commitment to yourself, to do the best job that you can.

Being conflicted about asking for help is perfectly normal, even commonplace. There exists a way of asking for help that works. The way you define your goal determines your success. Let’s say you are overloaded and need a break from caregiving. You want to call your sister to talk over the problem. If you define success as getting her to offer to help, you’re putting yourself in a vulnerable position and limiting your options. Further, if you become self-righteous, thinking, “She OUGHT to offer to help out—this is OUR mother!” you are setting yourself up for an upset. Your expectations are your worst enemy. Your goals and attitude are the golden keys to a successful conversation.


1. DEFINE YOUR GOAL - First, define your goal simply and broadly. You want to know who you can depend on for what. If your sister agrees to help, it’s a bonus.

2. DUMP YOUR EXPECTATIONS - Your expectations will sabotage you every time. Expectations leave you wide open for resentment, an unnecessary drain on your energy. Get clear about who your sister is. Her life may be more complicated than you know. She may be having her own difficulty accepting your elder’s decline. Don’t threaten your relationship by hanging everything on this one conversation. There are usually a number of ways to solve a problem.

3. BE CLEAR - Be clear within yourself and explicit in your words to her exactly what you are asking for. Do you just want to vent and have her listen? Or do you want advice? Do you want to brainstorm solutions to a problem? Do you want her to participate in some way that works for her to help resolve the problem? Being clear and speaking clearly greatly increases the chances that you will get helpful results.

4. BE GRACIOUS - If you come around to asking your sister to pitch in, and she says “No,” listen to what is behind the no. Then thank her for considering it.

5. MAKE ROOM FOR THE UNIMAGINED - Finally, if you have received a response of "No," ask her what she would be willing to do to support you.

During caregiving, family relations can be full of surprises. Those you thought would be there for you may disappear, while others you thought were too distant may step forward. Know what you need for support before you approach anyone for help. Then ask each person directly what they are willing or not willing to do. Only then will you know the makeup of your support team.

After making all the requests you can imagine, re-assess your situation. If your needs are still coming up short, contact your local social service agencies. There may be free services in your area. There certainly will be people trained in the field of caregiving who can advise you about your options.

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