Asking for Help Is a Gift Instead of a Burden
During her lifetime, Mom rarely took off her Superwoman cape. Proudly independent, Mom reveled in her ability to take care of everyone and handle everything. Even in her later years, she was striving to help her family and doing everything to savor life. In 2000, while suffering from Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), Mom was helping me hoist boxes in 90-degree temperatures during my big move to another city. Later that year, she single-handedly organized a surprise 75th birthday party for my father. In August 2001, Mom was right by me (albeit barely catching her breath) as we climbed the hills in Quebec, Canada on our last vacation together.
But by 2002, a sign indicated that all was not well. Mom and my brother, Steve, had driven down to visit me. While on an outing on her own, Mom forgot how to use the door unlock feature on the car key and wasn't sure how to get back into her mini-van. She went into the store where she had just finished shopping and asked for help.
The silver lining in this scenario: she had actually asked for help, which she rarely did in her lifetime and which she increasingly didn't do as her mental abilities diminished. Instead as mild cognitive impairment (MCI) emerged, Mom wholeheartedly embraced her independence. She started to blame others for trying to "control" her when they tried to help. She also removed herself from contact with friends who might realize she was struggling or who might offer help.
My father took the brunt of her anger. He increasingly saw a need to help her, but their marriage had been such that she had rarely ever needed any help before. Thus, Dad didn't know how to effectively offer that help, and Mom never could accept the assistance Dad offered. Instead, she tried to keep control of her responsibilities, from cleaning the house to organizing how they packed the mini-van on trips to see me. Slowly, a gulf opened between my parents, which widened as their respective behavior descended into biting comments and angry or hurt silences.
Mom finally asked for help in August 2005 when she called me one evening. Nearly hysterical, she was physically fragile by this time, yet consumed by the paranoia about my father's intentions and the desire to keep her independence. I decided at this point, without discussing it with either of my parents, that Mom was moving down with me, eventually to move into an area retirement community. By September 1, Mom was living with me and I started noticing not only her diminishing physical health, but also significant mental issues. By mid-September, I asked the EMTs (who were on their third emergency visit to my house in the span of one week due to Mom's breathing problems) to relay to the emergency room doctor that Mom needed a geriatric psychiatric evaluation. By early October, Mom was diagnosed with Alzheimer's and was placed in a nursing home located near me.
In looking back over those critical years from 2002 to 2005, I wonder how things could have played out differently. I know that I tried to serve as a long-distance intermediary. I tried to "coach" Dad in how to frame his suggestions so that Mom wouldn't hear them as criticisms. Without Mom's knowledge, I called some of her friends and explained her situation, pleading with them to call Mom or invite her to lunch. As far as I know, the friends did call, but there was little follow-through by either Mom or the friends. And so Mom's lonely physical and mental descent continued.
In retrospect, I think the key issue that played out over those three years was that Mom never learned to ask for help in her life. As I often have noted, Mom's response always was, "I don't want to be a burden." She always put on a stiff upper lip and tried to do what she had always been able to do - to tackle any issue by herself. Yet she wouldn't be successful in her quest against the cruel combination of COPD and Alzheimer's.
Raised and mentored by my mother to be independent, I learned several important lessons from Mom's experience over the last few years. The most important lesson was that instead of being a burden, asking for help is the ultimate way of letting others express their love for you. Previously, I would have single-handedly charged my way through caregiving. Yet having watched Mom's steep and lonely decline, I learned to ask family members and friends for whatever I needed, whether that be a weekend off, dinner, or assistance by doing an errand.
That lesson - one that Mom never learned and inadvertently taught me - has proven to be one of the most important and meaningful life lessons. It's not easy giving up control, but the multiple "presents" you give others are worth it. By asking for help, you give family members and friends (1) the opportunity to assist you in what you really need; (2) the chance to actively show their regard for you; and (3) the rewarding feeling that comes from helping others. Those are three great presents that anyone should be happy to give (and to receive).