Caregiving: The first step is admitting you have a problem.

I am a perfectionist and a control freak. I am fiercely independent. I have a strong sense of personal duty. I am bulldog-never-give-up stubborn and I like to finish what I start. My mother has noted that I am addicted to work. All of which means that I am considerably more at ease giving help than receiving it.

That attitude doesn’t cut it in caregiving.

You can’t sit with someone 24/7 and also go to the grocery store. You can’t be a singularly devoted daughter and not be cheating your husband and children (and employer) of the attention they deserve. You can’t cater exclusively to your care recipient’s needs without seriously undermining your own. In fact, often you can’t even take good care of someone by yourself; it is patently impossible simultaneously to be doing solid research on next generation therapies while keeping the ice chips flowing.

This is where you need to let go a little, and allow friends and family in.

I am lucky. I come from a Southern tradition where people expect to “do” for each other when someone is going through a rough spell. You don’t ask “What can I do?” You turn up. You bring food. You wash dishes and haul trash and run errands. You listen.

Consequently, I have a lot to be grateful for. The colleague who came on her lunch break—in her work clothes—to force me out on a walk every day—and who went at my breakneck pace, no questions asked. My aunt who, knowing I was alone and probably not eating, simply appeared in the hospital waiting room with a jar of warm, homemade potato soup. The friends and family who over the course of weeks turned up with dinner and good gossip and very much patience. I am eternally indebted to all those who gave us so much love and help and support without even being asked.

But the further reality is that this burst of loving support only lasts so long. It is crisis driven, and when your crisis should be past, people shift their attention to the next needy candidate. This is not to say they disappear; simply that they are less aggressively present. I have a feeling that is true the world over.

So I have had to learn to ask for help.

To actually schedule those walks. To arrange for others to take on some chores. To share information that further enables the sharing of tasks. To recognize that I neither can nor should do everything myself.

I urge you to recognize this truth for yourself. To form a team of caregivers. That doesn’t mean you simply go away; there are a lot of ways to organize the team.

  • There is the rotation method: In my grandmother’s waning years, each of her children were responsible on specific weekdays; in another family, siblings flew in for week-long stints to provide hospice care for their sister.
  • There’s the divide-and-conquer method: Many families divvy up chores by skill-set and geography; people across the country can pay bills, do research, even set up appointments while those nearby provide hands-on help. 
  • There is the family and friends method: In one of the loveliest acts of devotion I have ever seen, when one man grew too weak to join his Friday golf group, they came to him, bringing lunch and laughter and normalcy—and giving his wife a full afternoon off every week.
  • There is the outsourcing method: One long-distance caregiver organized a bevy of “staff” for her mother: the “housekeeper” who provides 40-hours a week of company and ensures she is well-fed and takes her medications; the “private exercise coach” who in some circles would be called a physical therapist; the driver and yardman and grocery home-delivery service that make continuing to live at home possible for this lady.

What is common among all these examples, is that the primary caregiver wasn’t afraid to let go a little—to ask for, and to accept, help.

I’m following their lead. And if I can do it, you can, too.