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When to Ask for Help

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This article was originally published on the Voices of Aging Blog.

I have a hard time asking for help. I see myself as an independent, competent person who can take care of herself quite well without anyone's assistance. At least that is how I felt until some recent events altered my thinking profoundly and permanently. In my writings I always struggle a little with how much to share of my personal life. However, since one of my goals is to raise issues that others may face, I select situations from my experience which may resonate with others. With this in mind, here is what caused my shift in attitude.

About a month ago, I was out of town helping a cousin and her husband each of who were diagnosed with terminal illnesses within ten days of each other. As you can imagine, this was an extremely difficult situation with endless things to manage around doctors, hospitals, finances, insurance, legal matters, and home care. Many of us have gone through fraught times like this and we know the seemingly infinite details to be handled. Fortunately, I was not the primary caregiver, but was there to help my relatives and those responsible for their care.

In the midst of this chaos, I began to feel unwell and decided to come home. I made a four hour drive alone, partly in the dark, and in pain. I went directly to Newton Wellesley Hospital Emergency Room where I was diagnosed with a kidney stone. For those of you who have had kidney stones, you know how it feels - awful. I made the drive with compelling clarity that I had to be among my family and others who knew me, and in a health system that was familiar. I did the right thing by coming home. I didn't want to be cared for in an unfamiliar place among strangers. So that was the good thing - coming home.

The not so good thing was that I didn't tell anyone that I was making this drive. I only called my children when I was back in Newton. I was totally convinced that I didn't need anyone to help me. When I got to the hospital, the staff there confronted me by saying, "your children are going to be pretty upset with you for making this journey by yourself under these circumstances." I explained to everyone that I stopped several times at rest areas, and that I knew that the pain would keep me awake. However, these feeble responses did not seem to be sufficient to qualm everyone's concerns. And, of course, they were right to be annoyed at me.

One of my children said, "Mom you should have at least let us know you were coming. We could have met you half way and taken you back to Newton." Another said, "One of your problems is that you don't ask for help when you need it." They are right of course. I showed a lack of judgment, not in the decision to return, but in not informing loved-ones that I was on my way.

This episode has forced me to reflect on some very important issues. First, I now acknowledge how scary it is for me to ask for help. My reluctance, I think, reflects my fear of becoming dependent. If I request assistance, does that suggest that I am no longer in control of my life? Does it mean that others will start making decisions for me? I, and probably many people my age, worry about these things. It is natural to fight to retain long-standing independence. Certainly it is good to maintain autonomy as long as possible. But I now see there may be a point at which self-sufficiency must yield to reason, especially when safety is at risk. I never felt unsafe during my drive - only the pervasive feeling that I had to get home. That sensation overrode everything and I was blind to any potential for disaster. I strategized my trip by breaking it up into segments - one stretch is 45 minutes - I can do that. The next segment is 50 minutes - I can do that. And I did it - one leg and the next. It was only on reflection that I saw the chances I may have been taking.

Second, and related to this revelation, is the obvious notion that doing something that was not very smart put my credibility more in jeopardy than if I had faced the situation up-front and told people what was happening.

Finally, I became stunningly aware of how important my family, friends, and community are. I had a primal need to be surrounded by people who I knew in a place where I didn't have to guess about where to go for help. This support system is surrounding me and it is there for a reason - to be available when I need it. But, it can't help me if I don't ask. I know now in the depth of my being that the next time I'm in trouble I will ask for help. It is the best way, perhaps the only way, for me to stay safe, strong, and independent.

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