When my husband was about to come home from a four-month hospitalization following a difficult stem cell transplant, a friend at my gym asked if there was anything she could do to help. I hesitated for a minute; I didn’t know her all that well, and my first instinct was to either wave her off or point her to the Meal Train sign up another friend had kindly organized. But my freezer was full. What I really needed was less conventional: help with rearranging our guest room to accommodate Brad’s care needs from someone who I knew could deadlift.
“Actually,” I said, “would you have time to come over and help me move some furniture?” She said she’d be glad to, and with her aid I got that furniture moved without throwing out my back. I also learned the importance of asking for the specific, real help that would really give me a boost or a break during a long caregiving journey.
Our individualist, self-reliant culture often leads caregivers like me to demur in the face of vague offers (we’ve all heard “let me know if I can do anything,” right?), or to say yes to whatever is offered—even if it’s a superfluous lasagna. Asking someone to fill a gas tank or pick up laundry detergent on their Costco run instead can feel vulnerable. But overcoming our reluctance and making those requests can both meet our immediate needs and show us who’s got our back, ultimately building the community all caregivers need.
Recently, I had the chance to pay it forward to a caregiving friend, and I was delighted when she asked me to pick up the bakery muffins her sons like best, because I knew I could offer authentic support. Especially in the busy holiday season, asking for what you really need can be a gift not only to yourself but to those who truly want to give to you.
Kate Washington is the author of Already Toast: Caregiving and Burnout In America (Beacon Press, 2021) and a speaker on the systemic challenges facing family caregivers. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, TIME, Eater, Catapult, and many other publications. She holds a Ph.D. in Victorian literature from Stanford University and lives in Sacramento with her husband and two daughters. Connect with her at kawashington.com or on Twitter @washingtonkate