03/13/2012 03:35 pm ET Updated May 13, 2012

Ask for Help, and Take It!

How many times has someone offered you help with your caregiving responsibilities and you've answered, "No thanks, I'm fine." When we talk about the burden facing caregivers, most people agree that getting help is necessary for maintaining their health and their sanity. They know that regular breaks from caregiving are akin to, in the words of flight attendants, putting on your oxygen mask before helping others. But for some reason, when it comes time to actually take that help, many caregivers resist.

Take Joanne, for example, who cares for her husband Paul. Paul has advancing Parkinson's disease and is a patient at the Visiting Nurse Service of New York. Joanne helps Paul around the clock with activities of daily living, and each year her work has become more demanding. While Joanne's siblings in Long Island and Paul's niece who lives 30 minutes away have offered assistance from time to time, Joanne always declined. When asked why she kept doing this all on her own, Joanne shrugged, "I just don't feel comfortable getting others involved; I feel this is my responsibility."

It is well documented that family caregivers face greater risks to their psychological and physical health than do non-caregivers. Higher levels of stress, anxiety, depression and other mental health effects are common among family members who care for an older relative or friend. In addition, caregivers suffer from increased rates of physical ailments such as acid reflux and headaches, and have higher levels of obesity and bodily pain. They also have diminished immune response, which leads to frequent infection and increased risk of cancers.i

One of the best ways to prevent the physical and emotional problems associated with caregiving is for a caregiver to regularly take time for him or herself -- to go to the doctor, to the gym, for a walk or to spend time with friends or on a hobby. But for many caregivers whose family member cannot be left alone, taking time for themselves means organizing some kind of respite care.

Respite care can be a structured program that takes your family member for a few hours, a night, or even several days at a time. Or you can get a home care worker to come to your home for a few hours a week. But good respite care can be expensive, and unless you have some kind of respite benefit in your insurance plan, financial constraints are real.

So what about taking help from family and friends, which wouldn't cost any money? Why do so many caregivers, including Joanne, dismiss offers of assistance, even from those closest to them? Reasons we hear most commonly include:

  • "I don't want to burden others."
  • "I don't want to admit I can't handle everything myself."
  • "My family member is not comfortable with anyone else taking care of them."
  • "It's more of a hassle to explain all the routines than to just do them myself."

If any of these reasons sound like your own, hear this: Robert L. Kane, MD, author of The Good Caregiver: A One-of-a-Kind Compassionate Resource for Anyone Caring for an Aging Loved One, says a worn-out caregiver cannot give very good care. "The FAA makes pilots take rest periods to refresh themselves to prevent place crashes. Caregivers need to prevent care crashes."

With Joanne, it took some lengthy discussions with a social worker, after which Joanne finally agreed to her brother's offer to stay with her husband two afternoons a week so that she could get her hair done, walk with a friend, and go shopping. She admits she was uncomfortable at first. "Having to explain all of his medications and what warning signs to watch for was hard, and almost made me throw in the towel." But she stuck with it, and while she called every hour the first week, by the second week, she really began to relax. "Last Friday night, our niece came over and I actually went out to see a movie!"

Joanne's caregiving responsibilities still challenge her every day. But by taking that first step to accepting help from others, she has taken a giant step in improving her own health, and even her ability to be a caregiver. Because let's face it -- a caregiver who is taking the time for her own health and maintaining a balance in life is in the best position to provide the important care their family member requires.

For more tips on how caregivers can take care of themselves, visit VSNY's website here.

For more by Kathryn Haslanger, click here.

For more on caregiving, click here.