Helping Others and Asking for Help When You Need It

Last month, in a workshop on Personal Safety Nets, a woman spoke up, saying: "You're talking about the things we might do to feel better ourselves—by helping others—but many of us who live here can't do the things you’ve mentioned." My response was to acknowledge that there may be limitations that accompany aging. The challenge is to identify and acknowledge the things we can still do and offer to others.

So we began a list of things she could do … and possibly do for others. This list helped her shift her feelings from those of lack to others of abundance. From there, it was easier to see how she might be able to assist someone else.

Everyone can do something for someone else and, in doing so, do something good for themselves. Mykim Tran, Sacramento Health and Happiness Examiner, lists five things that might get you started. Here they are, slightly adapted:

  1. Call someone to see how she's doing.
  2. Fix or share a meal with someone who's lonely.
  3. Let someone go ahead of you (in line or in traffic).
  4. Smile at a stranger in the street or in the lobby.
  5. Hold the elevator door for others.

"Volunteering and helping behavior is associated with a reduced risk of mortality," says Dr. Stephanie Brown, associate professor of preventive medicine at Stony Brook  University, NY. The only caveat is that, when volunteering, you must really care—it's important to give from a "full cup" within yourself.

Having defined limits (many call these boundaries) can help you. Figure out what you can do and like to do, and when and how much you want to do it, and then offer to do it. If you're asked to do something you don't like to do, asked to do too much, or asked to do something when you really shouldn't, you can offer to think of alternatives, but you owe it to yourself to set the boundaries and make choices of what you can and will do. Helping is good all around if it's done in balance with self care.

Allan Luks, author of The Healing Power of Doing Good: The Health and Spiritual Benefits of Helping Others, has researched what he calls "helper's high." He notes that endorphins—brain chemicals that reduce pain and increase euphoria—are experienced by parents helping children and by older adults regularly assisting others in some way. Altruism—helping others without any particular gain—strengthens immune systems, decreases the intensity and awareness of physical pain, activates positive emotions that support well-being, reduces negative attitudes that deplete well-being, and enhances functioning of body systems.

So, if we all like to feel better and helping others is a tried and true way to this, what gets in the way?

To help someone, whether it's to find out how a new community works when moving into a retirement home or to be able to enjoy a newspaper when sight is gone, most often requires that someone asks for your assistance or lets it be known that help would be welcome.

It's the asking that gets in the way. Here are some steps to help you ask effectively, when you need it:

  1. Figure out what you want and let others know by starting a conversation about your need, inviting them in. If you need or want several things, prioritize them.
  2. Make a list of people you might ask. List more than one person so if someone can't or won’t help, you have backup. Don't expect one person to fulfill all your needs.
  3. If it's difficult, think about writing a script before asking. And remember to ask nicely.
  4. If you hear "no," still say thank you—it's not about you but about the availability or ability of the person you asked.
  5. Say thank you and keep on giving to others.

You—and the person who helps you—will feel better!

For more on the benefits of volunteering, visit Volunteering and its Surprising Benefits: Helping Yourself While Helping Others.

Judy Pigott and Dr. John W. Gibson are co-founders of Personal Safety Nets, which helps people prepare to tackle life's changes and challenges by identifying, organizing, and appreciating the tools, knowledge, and resources available to them. For more information, contact Judy at

—Judy Pigott, Personal Safety Nets