Burnout is a real possibility for family caregivers - and it doesn't mean you're doing a bad job. Everyone needs a break now and then.
But, as we know, a caregiver's responsibilities don't just vanish when we need a vacation. That's why asking for help (and getting it) can be a lifeline.
Yet, asking for help can seem impossible for some of us. Why don't we ask for help more often? Why do we pile so much pressure on ourselves?
Today, Susanne White explores why it can be so hard to reach out for help. Read her 4 invaluable tips for learning to let go and delegate tasks when you need a rest.
Let's face it, most of us hate asking for help or turning the caregiving of our loved ones over to someone else.
Or, if we're lucky (or brave or tired) enough to admit we need help, we still have difficulty delegating and letting go.
Why caregivers have difficulty asking for help
If you think about it, our aversion to asking for help is pretty weird.
We've all grown up hearing sayings such as, "It takes a village to raise a child," "A problem shared is a problem halved," "Many hands make light work," and even (gag), "Teamwork makes the dream work."
As clichéd and overused as these sayings are, they all emphasise the importance of cooperation to survive and thrive.
As humans, we're hardwired to be social animals. We're assigned our "groups" from birth (families, towns and cities, countries). We depend on others, such as parents, to help us become adjusted, functioning adults. Without basic nurturing, none of us would survive.
As adults, we have the tools to "survive" in isolation, but we rarely "thrive." Science shows us that social isolation is damaging both mentally and physically.
You may be reading this and thinking, "But I have plenty of friends. I'm not alone." If that's the case - great! But do you ask these friends for help when you need it? Or do you show up, smile, and keep your struggles to yourself?
Humans are hardwired for communication, bonding, and cooperation. So, why does asking for help feel like a weakness rather than a natural instinct?
1. Survival of the fittest
As much as humans are hardwired to be social creatures, "survival of the fittest" (SotF) means we've spent thousands of years optimising ourselves to live as long as possible.
So, in times of extreme peril, the "weakest" members of the group would get left behind or shunned. Although this action plan supported us throughout the ages, it's not a particularly helpful attitude to have now. Especially as modern society strives to not leave anyone behind.
After all, isn't a caregiver's (usually voluntary!) role in protecting and keeping vulnerable people safe?
Still, SotF is so ingrained within us that we equate asking for help with weakness. Or, in a caregiver's case, "not up to the job." We're afraid of looking needy or being a burden. Sometimes, we feel our problems aren’t “significant enough” to warrant help, and we don’t want to embarrass ourselves by asking for it.
2. We live in a competitive world
A little competition is never a bad thing. Being exposed to competition early on helps us build vital skills such as determination, resilience, and focus when we're children. Sustained exposure to competition helps us realise we can't just give up when we fail.
However, too much competitiveness can become destructive and toxic. "Loser" continues to be one of the most hurtful labels of today, and we pile unnecessary pressure on ourselves to be considered winners.
As caregivers, we may swing between wanting to be "perfect" and feel like we're "not good enough." But both states prevent us from asking for help, even when needed. Instead, we use variations of the following three excuses again and again:
- A "perfect" caregiver doesn't need to ask for help.
- A "not good enough" caregiver doesn't deserve help.
- Asking for help will somehow expose the weaknesses of the "not good enough" caregiver, leading to judgment from friends and family.
Whatever the excuse we choose that day, all act as defence mechanisms against perceived rejection. It's not healthy - for our loved ones or for us.
3. Asking for help means surrendering control
A popular saying goes, "If you want something done right, do it yourself."
In other words, other people aren't reliable enough to depend on. Or, if someone does put in the effort, the job won't be done the way YOU want (which is the right way, obviously!).
When people are scared or insecure, asserting control makes them feel safer. As a result, people can quickly spiral into trying to control things outside of their grasp, like the actions, reactions, or emotions of others.
Being a caregiver, you feel personally responsible for the health and happiness of your loved one. Your help and support are invaluable. But when taking control goes too far, it can make you, your loved one, and the others around you utterly miserable.
People want to help more than you think
Do any of the above reasons sound familiar? When we face hurdles alone, we can convince ourselves it's "easier". But most of us fear rejection, humiliation, or disappointment under the surface.
However, most of the time, people do want to help. Studies have shown that people like being asked for help – and helping can bring people closer together.
Interestingly, some studies suggest that asking for help makes you more likeable. People feel good when they help others. If you're the one reaching out, they'll associate that good feeling with you.
Asking for help finally brought me some relief
At the beginning of my caregiving journey, I was a long-distance caregiver for both of my parents. While this arrangement worked, I worried about them more when I wasn't there.
I was forced to confront reality: either I could carry on struggling, or I needed to build a "care team" - and fast.
This realisation was a big step, as I'm usually a perfectionist (and, being honest, a bit of a control freak). Thankfully, the universe came to my rescue and helped me build a dynamic group of friends and family to help out. Truthfully, I feel like they saved me.
Learning to delegate as the primary caregiver
As someone who likes being in control, delegating caregiving tasks was alien territory. I worried about accidents, mistakes, and burdening the group... But once I saw how much relief I felt and how much it helped me, I got better at it!
I still got worried and probably never stopped. Yet, little by little, I began to see how miraculous it was to have help when I needed it. All I'd had to do was swallow my pride, open up, and ask. All the fears I'd had before - of being rejected, made to feel "less than," and losing control - were entirely unnecessary.
If you need help (and all caregivers do), here are some things that made delegating easier and quietened my inner control freak. It's difficult at first, but I promise you don't have to completely let go of the reins!
1. Get real with yourself
Feel exhausted? Feel like more and more things are slipping out of your grasp?
It's time to make a hot drink and have an honest talk with yourself about what's going on.
What parts of caregiving are crushing you? What kind of help do you need to get out from under all that weight?
What parts are you really good at? Or enjoy?
Could you benefit from someone with different skills lending you a hand?
Then ask yourself the most complicated question: Why are you so hesitant to delegate?
Are you ashamed or feel like a failure if you can't do it alone? Are you trying to be perfect?
Friendly newsflash: No one is perfect, and no one can do the job of caregiving alone. Getting help doesn't make you a failure or a bad caregiver.
Asking for help makes you brave and pragmatic about your well-being and the health of those you love. Delegating even the smallest tasks frees you to do the most urgent, vital things for your loved one. It also allows you to be more proactive about your self-care.
2. Start small
You don't have to hand everything over at once. Let the perfectionist acclimatise to delegating tasks here and there.
Start small if you'll need to adjust to handing over control. Let everyone get up to speed with how you do things by slowly introducing them to your daily routine or schedule.
Friends or family members who want to help may want to tag along to appointments or shadow you during the day. This may be anxiety-inducing, but stick with it! Sometimes, simply having an extra pair of hands makes a big difference.
3. Experiment and be patient
Asking for help doesn't mean you're locked into a new agreement. Suppose you feel overwhelmed by a caregiving task you usually enjoy. In that case, you don't need to hand over that duty forever - just until you get back on your feet.
Don't worry if some handed-over duties don't go as well as hoped. Not everyone can be a superstar at everything. Recognise the issues quickly and regroup as soon as you can.
Delegating is a process, and adjustments will need to be made all of the time. For example, someone may be terrible at cooking, but they may be great at soothing your loved one.
Plus, anyone taking on new duties may need a few days to adjust. Take a few days to let everything settle down. If the person helping you still seems to be struggling, don't assume they're "not up to the job." Figure things out together, and maybe re-juggle some tasks. You'll get there.
4. Avoid micromanaging
Finally, once you've delegated something to someone, don't micromanage (as tempting as it can be).
No one likes feeling they're constantly being watched for minor mistakes - especially when they genuinely want to help. Having someone hovering over your shoulder can make mistakes more likely too.