Asking for help is one of the hardest things to do for many family caregivers – and I’d venture to say for many people in general. I’m not sure why this is the case when we are all in the same boat. Everyone needs a hand with this or that now and then. It is ok!
Willem O’Reilly, Alzheimer’s family caregiver for his wife, shares a story about how he learned this important lesson. But please, don’t wait as long as he did!
Thank you for your insights, Willem!
Need Help? It’s There for the Asking
Last night I spoke on a panel of caregivers at the facility where Molly lives.
We had a list of questions that covered many fundamental issues that affect all caregivers for dementia patients. They ranged from “How did you handle the diagnosis?” to “What has been most helpful to you as a caregiver? Most helpful to your loved one?”
Many of the responses sounded familiar. For example, taking away the car keys when the Alzheimer’s patient can no longer drive safely is always challenging. As one panel member related, even if the person has not driven in a long time it is dangerous to leave the keys where he might find them. He might one day decide to drive to the store and wind up in the neighbor’s yard.
Some stories were more unique. The wife of the other man on the panel was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s in her fifties. Her husband pretended that he was having memory problems in order to get her to a doctor for evaluation. The doctor played along and examined both husband and wife together. Randy’s strategy worked for a very difficult situation.
One woman couldn’t answer the diagnosis question because she wasn’t involved in caring for her mother early on. Her father took care of his wife at home for years until he himself became ill and passed away. My fellow speaker had to take over and start learning herself what caregiving is all about.
I listened and told mine and Molly’s story. I had planned ahead of time to speak mostly about self-care. I wanted to emphasize strategies that had helped me cope. One is meditation. The teachers I learned from practice “insight meditation.” In this style, one calms the mind by focusing on the breath. Then one observes what comes up in the body and the mind.
This proved to be a wonderful approach for me in dealing with the painful emotions of grieving. Eventually, I got to the place where I recognized feelings as they arose. “Oh, yes, here’s anger back again.” “This is sadness; I’ve felt like this before.” The great benefit of this practice for me was that I came to understand that the uncomfortable, unpleasant feelings come and go. They don’t last forever: they arise and they cease.
This, then, was to be my lecture topic for the evening. Of course, it didn’t turn out the way I planned. The format included multiple questions with responses from each of the five panel members to each question. There wasn’t time or space for Professor O’Reilly to deliver a lecture on meditation, or any other topic.
So, I focused my responses on a much simpler self-care issue: asking for help.
As the oldest of fourteen children, as an adoptive parent to three children from the third world, as a community college professor teaching freshmen students still living at home, and as a caregiver for Molly, I was well versed in the hero role. I took care of everyone. I was competent. I was good in a crisis. I was always the responsible adult in the room. And, I did almost all of it on my own.
I never learned how important it was to ask for help until I was forced to do so. For me, that was when I got cancer and had to have surgery while I was a full-time caregiver for Molly. After the surgery, there were days when I couldn’t get out of bed. I couldn’t take care of Molly. I needed help, and the only way to get it was to ask for it. I did ask, and people stepped forward willingly to assist me and Molly.
My experience with caregiving and Alzheimer’s has taught many things, but two conclusions seem especially important. We are stronger than we believe ourselves to be. We are never alone.
I have been helped by family, friends, neighbors, public servants, and complete strangers. At first I was surprised by how willing people were to help me and Molly. Later, I concluded that the vast majority of people are kind and generous. Help is available on all sides.
The trick is to learn to ask for it. I learned in a pretty hard way, but I did learn. It was one of the great lessons of my whole caregiving experience.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Willem O’Reilly is a freelance writer and a caregiver for his wife Molly, who has Alzheimer’s. Willem has been a college professor, a grant writer, a real estate broker, a photographer, a diversity trainer, and a business consultant. He and Molly raised three adopted children from the Philippines, who are all in their thirties now. Willem’s anticipatory grief journal has become the basis for a forthcoming book What Do I Do Now? A Caregiver’s Journey with Alzheimer’s.
Willem O’Reilly’s book What Do I Do Now? A Caregiver’s Journey with Alzheimer’s is now available on Amazon or by order at your bookstore.