The word "NO" written on several palms.A post I wrote last month apparently hit a nerve in the caregiver community, so I thought I’d address the gist of these comments. It was about asking for help at holiday gatherings.

As a caregiver who became used to doing it all, I stopped asking others for help. Why bother? My husband refused to have anyone but me care for him when he was ill. The same held true for his mother, who lived with us. I was the one who knew their idiosyncrasies and anticipated their every need. Being a mind-reader became my way of life, and ultimately I became angry with myself for having chosen such a restricted path. Earlier behavior had created an existence for me that couldn’t be modified—or at least I was convinced of that. I had hit bottom, as many of you can relate to, and surrendered to the situation. I accepted as “fact” what was actually merely personal preference—both theirs and mine—for I felt that any change would upset the proverbial applecart, and I didn’t want to add petty arguments to the already trying circumstances.

In November of 2010, my husband Steve needed to have a surgical procedure in Boston. I was prepared for us to stay there for a week. Steve would be in the hospital and I would stay with him around the clock if needed. We had a hotel room near the hospital for me to take breaks now and then. Steve had asked his brother to fly in from Texas to be with him, which puzzled me, since he’d been of so little help for the first four years of Steve’s illness.

There were unexpected complications after surgery and I was needed around the clock. The morning of day two after the operation, I had slept in Steve’s room and was awakened by excruciating pain in my abdomen. The nurses on the floor put me in a wheelchair, told me to make myself look really sick, bundled me up and wheeled me into the Emergency Room. I was admitted to the hospital and placed in isolation until they could ascertain what was wrong.

They never reached a real diagnosis, but I was flying high on pain medication that had me out cold for five days. There was no way for me to worry about what would happen to my husband if I were not there to take care of him? Oh yeah…his brother was there. He had to rise to the occasion for the two of us. We were on different floors of the same hospital, and Steve had to see me—he was honestly afraid that I had left him—and once he saw me, he somehow rallied himself and the troops.

Lo and behold, family came to care for both of us. One cousin had come up from New Jersey to see Steve, but sat by my bed for two solid days instead. Then, she packed up everything that was in the hotel room, while her husband stayed and sat with Steve, who was a nervous patient to begin with. And, since they couldn’t read his mind and didn’t know his catalog of preferences, he had to ask for what he wanted. Huzzah!

Meanwhile back in New York, my mother-in-law, Sylvia, was learning that it wasn’t so bad having a hired companion care for you. She had helped us hand pick someone she’d feel comfortable with who also needed to possess the patience of a saint. All went well.

It took my being hospitalized for the two people in my care to realize that I was not the only one capable of meeting their needs. But I learned that I was not irreplaceable. When we returned home, Sylvia continued to have a companion come in weekdays. Steve reverted to being dependent on me, but I began to ask for help when I needed it.

My recent post was about holiday gatherings. I can’t think of an occasion that I’ve been invited to at someone’s home where I didn’t ask how I could help. Whether it was bringing food to the table, or serving, or cleaning up, I was “Johnny on the spot!” Most people I know are like that.

Bottom line is—if you do not ask for help, the answer will always be NO—or, to quote my Aunt Sylvia—“You don’t ask, you don’t get.” If you have a houseful of guests and you need extra help, ask. If they don’t respond, ask again. Something as simple as the request “Would you please help clear the table?” is a hard request to refuse. They may have done nothing to help in the past, but they shouldn’t be counted out. If you continue to do it all, they will just let you. You shouldn’t wait ‘til you get sick to ask for assistance.


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