There are 40 million family caregivers who need your help. These are the women and men caring for loved ones who can no longer do some of their own basic daily life activities, such as bathing, cooking meals or going to the bathroom. They are often unpaid and overwhelmed. (Alyssa Schukar/For The Washington Post)
Columnist

The holidays open our hearts in ways no other time of the year does. We generously give our time and money to the poor and others in need.

But there are 40 million family caregivers who also need your help. These are the women and men caring for loved ones who can no longer do some of their own basic daily life activities, such as bathing, cooking meals or going to the bathroom. They are often unpaid and overwhelmed. Many won't complain or call out for help despite drowning in their dutiful role as a caregiver.

We ask people who are struggling with caregiving responsibilities how we can assist them.

Yet that's just not good enough.

If you have a family member or friend who is a caregiver, watch "Help," a video that is part of the caregiving campaign by AARP and the Ad Council. You can find the video on YouTube. It was created pro bono by advertising agency Spike DDB, headed by iconic filmmaker Spike Lee.

In the video, a woman is finishing up a visit with a friend, who is being cared for by her husband. "Bye, Janet," she says. "It was nice seeing you again. You look good, girl."

Then the friend turns to the husband-caregiver before driving off and says, "Just let me know what I can do to help."

This is what we say when we don’t know what to do.

In the next scene in the video, which is just over a minute long, the husband faces the camera. What follows brilliantly captures the challenge of being a caregiver.

“Well, to help me, she’d have to help every day,” the husband says. "Every hour. Every ‘ouch.’ Every time my wife calls for help. I mean, maybe she could help make her lunch. But the crust — all the crust — has to be cut off the corners. She could help me run to the doctor for the fifth time this week. Help me with the specialists and the second opinions and the painful paperwork about paperwork.

"Help me deal with how hard it is seeing my wife's name on so much paperwork. But this is on me. I am the only one that can do this, like this, for her. Besides, Janet doesn't like her cooking anyway."

The announcer in a voice-over tells people to visit AARP.org/caregiving or call (877) 333-5885 for support.

I’ve been hearing from so many caregivers, and their stories both inspire and break my heart. They are unsung heroes and heroines caring for one or sometimes both parents.

There was Dorothy, whose father came to live with her family after his wife died. He could no longer live alone because of his memory loss. She found a daytime program where her father could go while she worked from home.

“I discovered that buses were available for a small fee, and we shifted to putting him on the bus in the morning and making sure one of us was there to meet the bus and sign for him.”

Dorothy says she lost sleep and couldn't find the time to exercise. Her father eventually had to be moved to an assisted-living facility. He died a year ago at 91. "You've got to do what you've got to do, the best way you can."

Here's how to go beyond the platitude of "Just let me know what you need."

Ask with a plan. Don’t offer help like this: “I can come relieve you whenever you want.” Instead say, “I’m free on Wednesday from noon to 3 p.m. to give you some relief. Does that work for you?”

You may have to insist, but caregivers need a respite.

Listen for clues of how you can help. In the “Help” video, the husband described being a chauffeur and cook. Bring a meal. And sometimes just helping drop off and pick up at a doctor’s appointment is a big relief for a caregiver.

Share calendars. When you’re busy doing, you often don’t share what needs to be done. On AARP.org, search for “Apps to Help Caregivers Stay Organized.”

Help with the homework. Don’t say, “There are a lot of resources for caregivers.” Instead say, “I’ve researched some elder-care programs, and here’s a list.”

Use a holiday visit to assess what needs to be done. Come prepared not to be a guest but a surrogate caregiver. In a poll last year, AARP found that family caregivers want help during the holidays. Almost eight in 10 said it would be helpful to have someone to talk with who understands, 73 percent would like help with holiday tasks, and 72 percent would like help with holiday meals.

Let’s help caregivers change their internal dialogue. They shouldn’t have to go it alone.