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Practical Insights for Busy Caregivers

How to get help as a family caregiver when you’re too overwhelmed to ask for it


February 11, 2018, by Paul Cavanagh,

When her mom had her first psychotic episode, Cheryl went to great lengths to make sure she got the care she needed. When the second episode came four years later, Cheryl was a new mother on the verge of moving to another city where her husband had found work. She was also transitioning to new work herself. She came to her mom’s aid again, even though her mom was resistant to being helped. It was at that point Cheryl had a mental health crisis of her own.
She didn’t realize she was in crisis at the time. It took a therapist to tell her. “I had gotten myself into such a situation that I didn’t even know I was in over my head,” she says. Although she is very capable and resourceful, simple things like unloading the dishwasher began to overwhelm her. “I literally couldn’t think.”
Cheryl found herself torn in different directions: taking care of her mom, looking after her own family, and trying to take care of herself. “I’m playing all these roles,” she says. “And some of them are protective, and some of them are more like aggressive and assertive – trying to get the care [my mom] needs. And some of them are kind of like I need to step back and let her sort through this. Or push? But when to know how to do all those roles is… is, I don’t know. I’m guessing.”
At the time of her mother’s second episode, a lot of changes had recently happened in Cheryl’s life, some positive, some challenging, but all significant. None of them was overwhelming on its own, but together they gradually put a strain on her coping skills. Her therapist used the analogy of a frog in a frying pan filled with water to help Cheryl understand her situation. Turn the heat up quickly, and the frog jumps out of the pan. But turn the heat up gradually enough, and the frog doesn’t notice anything is wrong.
A common refrain that many family caregivers hear is “don’t be afraid to ask for help.” The problem for Cheryl was that she couldn’t tell people what she needed, even though she’s normally very articulate. “I couldn’t articulate it because my brain was not processing. And I couldn’t communicate.”
She could tell her therapist, “This is what I’m feeling.” And the therapist would acknowledge it and tell Cheryl what she needed because Cheryl couldn’t think of it herself.
Cheryl’s husband was working out of town. She realizes how difficult it must have been for him, trying to help her from a distance.
The therapist met jointly with the two of them. “I needed her to tell him,” Cheryl says. “Because I didn’t know how to tell him what I needed or what would make me better or how to help or, you know, what was actually going on in my brain.”
The therapist told him, “This is what Cheryl needs. She can’t tell it to you because she doesn’t know it herself… And yes, unloading the dishwasher is legitimately overwhelming for her. I know this seems absurd, but she can’t do these things. So this is what you need to do.”
One of the lessons of Cheryl’s story is that even smart, capable family caregivers can become overwhelmed by life events without necessarily realizing it. And even when they do recognize it, it may be difficult for them to articulate what they need or reach out for help.
How can friends and family be supportive? Cheryl’s therapist has the following advice:
  • Ask questions regularly. Check in frequently. Listen to the family caregiver’s answers and dig deeper.
  • If someone is admitting to feeling overwhelmed, or stressed, or anxious about something, instead of asking “how can I help?” and leaving it open-ended, ask, “Do you want me to run any errands for you? Would it be helpful for me to take on ____ task for you? Do you want me to babysit for you so that you can go to yoga for an hour? Do you want me to bring you dinner?”
These are the sorts of questions Cheryl would have found helpful because she wasn’t able to ask them herself.
If you’re a family caregiver who finds yourself in a situation similar to Cheryl, you can share this article with friends or family so that they can help you better.