The phone rang this afternoon while Mary Ann was napping.  It was a former parishioner who was in trouble.  She and her husband were struggling with what to do.  They had eaten all they could of the wonderfully decadent chocolate dessert and were at a loss as to what to do with the last two pieces.  Could they bring themselves to throw them away???

When she finished describing their distressing situation, I made a remarkably generous offer.  You may not believe the level of my generosity, but here is what I offered.  I just blurted it out without even thinking.  Isn’t that the way heroes often describe their heroic acts — “I just did it without thinking.”  I told her that Mary Ann and I would eat those two pieces of dessert for her!!

She was so grateful, she and her husband brought them to our house.  It just feels good to do something to help other people when they are in need.

Last week I left the house on Tuesday evening to spend some quiet time away while a Volunteer spent time with Mary Ann.  There was one garden tomato left from a number that had been given to us.  By the time I returned that evening, there were thirteen with the a call promising more the next day, raising the total to twenty-one.  There were zucchini, a squash, a melon that had been delivered with the tomatoes that evening.  The next day the promised tomatoes came, plus some additional ones from a Volunteer who just brought some with her.  I have already eaten most of the tomatoes, and another ten came on Sunday.

Monday evening of this week after being out for a while, I came home to find a warm cobbler fresh from the oven that a former parishioner had delivered, along with a small vase filled to overflowing with brightly colored blossoms.

Today I was treated to lunch out while a Volunteer spent time with Mary Ann.  That is a monthly treat.

In the last fifteen days there has been at least one Volunteer at some time during the day on eleven of those days.  While schedules don’t usually allow Volunteers to come quite that often, it is overwhelming to think about how many people break open their busy days to make room for time at our home.  It is quite humbling to see just how thoughtful and generous people are.  The hours that Volunteer Coordinator Mary spends just scheduling all those people is a testament to that generosity.

It is hard not to feel guilty in the face of so many people in circumstances like ours, often in much more difficult circumstances, who don’t have a cadre of Volunteers and a Mary to schedule them. There are so many who are trapped in their own homes most of the time because one or both is suffering from chronic illness.  Those days when there are no Volunteers, or Mary Ann is having a bad day that keeps us in, or I have gotten sick, we have a taste of that kind of confinement and the loneliness it brings, the sensation of helplessness. As difficult as it is even with all the Volunteers, the thoughtful and generous people that surround us — as difficult as it is to manage full time caregiving, it is hard to imagine the challenge of that caregiving without support.

If you know someone in circumstances like ours, give him/her a call and ask, “What can I do to help?”  If they can’t think of anything when you call, offer to come over and help them make a list of answers to give people when they ask that question.  Then offer to check around, contact some folks who might be willing to help, ask them what on the list they would be willing to do, and schedule the doing of that task.

If you want to write a comment about this or any of the posts on this blog, look to the column on the right side of this page, titled “Recent Posts,”  click on the name of a post and you will find a box at the end of that article in which you can write a comment.  Clicking on the title of the post you are reading will accomplish the same thing.  Comments are appreciated.

I have heard it hundreds of times when listening to folks who want to help when someone’s spouse has died, “Call me if you need anything.”   I have said it.  Sometimes it is said because the person offering just doesn’t know what to do to help. They probably already have brought food to the house. Sometimes it is said because the person saying it knows there will be a time later when the first wave of attention has subsided that the needs will come. Sometimes it is said just to have something to say, and the one saying it has no expectation that he/she will be called.

My experience has been that people do want to help when there has been a death or when chronic illness has entered the life of a friend. First of all, people genuinely don’t know what to do. They don’t know what to offer to do and when to offer it. They really do want you to call and ask.

There are some problems with the offer and even the intention.  First of all, you may not know what to suggest, what you need.  You may have very little idea what would be helpful to you, until whatever it is actually becomes an identifiable problem.  It is hard to know what people are actually willing and able to do.  It is hard to know when to ask them.  When will they have time to do what you have finally discovered would be helpful? 

Assuming you have decided what you need done, how do you muster the courage to make the phone call?   If you make the call and ask, what if they really don’t want to do it, or need not to do it, but they say yes because they don’t want to hurt your feelings?  What if they say no, for whatever reason?  Do you dare call them again?  They will tell you to call again, but how long should you wait?  You certainly don’t want to hear a “no” again.  It doesn’t take too many times calling for help before you begin to feel as if you are begging, manipulating, wearing out your welcome.  The last thing you want is for your friends to begin to dread your calls. 

Then, of course, you should be able to handle it all.  You are a capable person.  Why should you ask someone else to do something  you are perfectly able to do?  If you ask people to help you will feel obligated to them.  You will owe them something in return.  You have enough to do just taking care of your Loved One, the house (inside and outside), the car, your job, making meals, doing wash — the list is endless.  How will you have time to return the favor or at least adequately thank the person, compensating them with the efforts you put into those thanks?

Let’s begin with the reason for letting people help.  The truth is, the real truth, people need to help other people.  We are wired to live in community.  That means people need to help each other in some way.  Whether you understand humans to be intentionally created by a Someone, or the product of accidents of a natural process, our DNA leads us to work together.  That is how we have come to accomplish so much as a species.  To be truly human, we need to do part of a larger task so that we all can survive.  People need to help.  How can they help if no one is willing to let them??  To allow someone to help you is to allow them to grow and flourish and find joy and meaning and satisfaction as the truly human beings they are constructed to be.  Your need opens possibilities in the lives of others, your friends.  Care enough about them to let them help. 

That sounds reasonable (at least to me).  The question is, how do we ask, given all the reasons not to call?  In our years of dealing with Parkinson’s and finally coming to the point of simply not being able to do this on our own, we have come upon a way to ask for help, a way that avoids almost all of the disincentives to calling people for help. 

It started this way.  One winter, during one of the dramatic downward plunges on our roller coaster ride, Mary Ann could no longer be left alone.  I was working more than sixty hours a week at a terribly demanding job (technically I was on call twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week – seldom but sometimes called out during the night).  I was too young to retire and survive financially.  We couldn’t afford the fifteen to twenty dollars an hour for paid caregivers.  Multiply that amount by sixty hours per week and see what it would have cost. 

I was serving as the Pastor of a large and active congregation.  Our Parish Nurse immediately got on the phone and called some people for us, asking if they would stay with Mary Ann.  They did!!!  Margaret phoned. They could say yes or no to her with no concern for hurting our feelings.  They could decide for themselves if that was something they had the time and interest in doing.  When finally Margaret could no longer serve all the other folks in need in the congregation and make all those contacts, Carol took over.  She seemed to enjoy making the calls and talking with people and making such a difference in our lives — and serving the congregation in an important way.

There were over sixty-five Volunteers at one time in these last seven or eight years.  When Carol’s health made it impossible for her to continue that full time task, it was the time that our Daughter, Lisa, and her family moved here to help us out.  Many Volunteers were still needed. Mary and Edie were added to the coordinators doing the calling.  To this day I have no idea how Carol managed that task by heself all those years. 

Here is where technology entered the picture.  Under Helpful Caregiving Resources on the right side of the page of this screen there is a website that has made the impossible possible.  It is www.lotsahelpinghands.com.  It is a free website that allows coordinator(s) to schedule people to fill needs of all sorts.  We have used it to schedule Volunteers to stay with Mary Ann, people to give rides, provide food.  Any tasks can be scheduled.  The site sends out Email reminders periodically up to the day before the person’s scheduled task.  For those who do not do the computer, the coordinator makes phone contacts and enters the information.  People can go online and schedule themselves in a slot that has not been filled.   Check it out.  It is a powerful, very well constructed site, and it is free!!

What can people do to help?  Someone who wants to do something from home can do the phoning and scheduling.  Some people are willing to help by driving your Loved One to or from something when you are not available to do so.  If you need a second set of hands for that trip in the car, someone may be willing to help.  We have some folks on a list who will come immediately if they are available when Mary Ann has fallen and the Volunteer with her is not able to get her up.   There are people who will stay overnight with her if I need a night’s rest.  There are people who have come and picked up clothes to iron for us.  There are folks willing to shop or run errands for us if we can’t get out.  Of course there are many who are happy to bring some food over.   Develop a list of ways people can help.  Maybe you could do it all — but I doubt it — not for long.  Ultimately, insisting on doing it all by yourself will remove your ability to do any of the Caregiving. 

Caregiver, “What can I do to help?”  Have an answer ready, many answers.  Have a way for them to help by doing what they are able to do,  what they want to do, when they can do it.  You are only human.  You cannot do it all.  They need the opportunity to help, not just to be only human but to be truly human. 

Think about it.  What help do you need?  What can people do to make a difference for good in your life?

If you want to write a comment about this or any of the posts on this blog, look to the column on the right side of this page, titled “Recent Posts,”  click on the name of a post and you will find a box at the end of that article in which you can write a comment.  Clicking on the title of the post you are reading will accomplish the same thing.  Comments are appreciated.