Last week, we talked about boundaries in caregiving, as well as the many hats a caregiver must wear. For friends and family, it can be difficult to know how to help in a situation that feels so helpless. In this post, I am going to look at helping someone who is ill through the eyes of a supportive friend or family member and also through the eyes of a caregiver and patient. Then I will share some simple solutions to care coordination and knowing how to help.
As a Supportive Friend or Family Member:
When you hear that someone you care about is facing cancer or some other life-altering illness, you want to somehow help. The question is: How? All sorts of things will run through your head. It’s common to assume they must already have a lot of help. There is probably some organized system in place complete with a meal rotation and prayer chain. It’s easy to feel like you would just be one more person underfoot. Maybe they already have enough meals or rides.
Then, there’s the question of offering the help.
You want to let them know you care and that you’d like to help, but, how? What if you say something “wrong?”
There is also a bit of mystery surrounding the home life of someone so ill.
It’s easy to picture their home as a somber place of silence. What if you call and the ring of the phone wakes your friend from a much-needed nap? We’d sure hate to bother the caregiver who, as I wrote about in the last post, may have collapsed with exhaustion. So, we put off calling.
What can you do?
Finally, we run into our friend at church or in the supermarket. This is our chance to let them know we’d like to help. But, how? Maybe you’ve heard that bringing a meal is helpful, but you don’t cook. You try to think of something else they might need help with, but never having had cancer, you just don’t know.
So, we resort to saying, “Please let me know if you need anything.” We mean it with all our heart. But, we never get a call. Maybe they are doing okay. After all, they haven’t called.
This is how it goes.
As a Caregiver:
You are feeling overwhelmed, but this is your spouse, or your parent, or sibling, or best friend. You love them so much. It’s your job and honor to care for this loved on in your time of need. So, you try to do it all.
Then, you become exhausted.
You start to realize that you might not be able to do this alone. After all, this could be a long road and you are wearing out fast. Who do you ask for help?
Then you see a friend in the supermarket.
They heard from another friend that your spouse is ill and they are very sympathetic. They don’t say it because they are kind, but they can see you are frazzled by all the responsibilities of life and caring for your spouse. Your friend wants to help. They say, “Please let me know if you need anything.” That’s so nice of them.
You thank them and go home.
You think again about how nice it was that they offered to help. What could they do to help? You hate to ask them for a meal, after all, they work a full-time job. And while your to-do list is a mile long, you couldn’t ask them to help you take your car in for maintenance, or clean the garage as winter is setting in. Surely, they weren’t offering to help with that kind of thing, even though those responsibilities are weighing on you.
I come from Minnesota where we have the phrase “Minnesota Nice.” Sometimes we can nice ourselves out of the very thing we need. As a friend who doesn’t want to make things worse, we hesitate to offer specific help. As a caregiver who doesn’t want to be a bother to others, we hesitate to ask for help, even when it’s offered.
The Solution for Supportive Friends and Family
When you have a loved one who you would like to help, don’t worry about what they might need. Yes, you heard that right! The truth is, half the time, they are too overwhelmed to know what they need. Instead, think about the things you are good at. Come up with three different options. Then let them know. Say, “I’ve been thinking about you so much, lately. I would really like to help. Here are 3 things I can offer. Would any of that be helpful to you?”
Don’t get hung up on the number. Maybe you only have one thing. That’s okay. Three is the maximum because anything more will make an easy decision a hard one. The beauty in this is that you can do something you are good at, and it may be just what they need. I call this multiple choice help.
We have a friend who when we were moving, said, “I would really like to help you but I don’t cook. I do organize well, though. I know you are moving. Could you use my help packing? I could even bring boxes.” She was an angel from heaven! Who offers to help someone move? Only an angel.
Never feel like the thing you offer is less than what someone else may do to help. You are lifting a burden in your own special way. By offering specific help, you are also giving that person explicit permission to take you up on it. They will know you aren’t just trying to be polite.
The Solution for Caregivers
I have several pieces of advice for patients and caregivers. First of all…
Don’t be afraid to ask for help
This week I brought a couple of meals to a friend who is going through cancer treatment. When Dan was on a particularly difficult treatment, she was one of the people who blessed our family with a meal. She said that for two days, she wrestled with whether to ask for help or not. Then she remembered that I told her I’d bring her a meal if she ever needed one. But it was hard. This is one of those times when you have to swallow your fear or pride, or anything else that’s getting in the way of getting help.
Keep a list
There will be people who will say, “If you need anything, just call. I mean it.” Often at the time, you can’t think of anything off the top of your head that you need. Then, one day your kid needs a ride and you have an appointment, or you’re just too exhausted to go anywhere. Or you need a meal and you’ve been at chemo all day. Or your garage needs organizing so you can get the car in by winter time. The list of needs is endless.
So, make a list of helpers, those people who have offered. And when those needs arise, call, text or email and ask for the help.
Utilize Social Media for Care Coordination
We are more connected than ever by the internet. There are wonderful tools that you can use to facilitate getting help. My favorite is Caring Bridge. Many people know that it gives you the ability to update family and friends on your condition by writing a journal entry. T also has a planner. You can put anything you need help with on the planner and your friends sign up to help with any task that works for them. I particularly like that you aren’t limited to meal requests.
If you need more than an occasional meal, Take Them a Meal is the perfect meal coordination site.
Another care coordination site is Lotsa Helping Hands. I personally didn’t find it as easy to use as Caring Bridge, because we had already built up a community on our Caring Bridge site. But if you are new to this, Lotsa Helping Hands is worth checking out.
While there are specialized care coordination sites, some people choose to use Facebook, either just posting to their personal page, or by creating a specific page or Facebook group for the patient. Using Facebook, they can update friends and family as well as ask for help when the need arises.
And of course, there is always the good old-fashioned phone tree. This requires someone to coordinate the calendar and mobilize people, but it gets the job done. It’s also perfect for prayer requests.
A few more tips
Don’t worry about cleaning your house.
If you get yourself worked up about how your house looks every time someone drops off a meal or comes to visit for a few minutes, you’ll be more worn out than if you’d have made the meal yourself. People understand that you are tired, you’ve had appointments and you don’t feel well. That goes for caregivers as much as the patient.
Don’t worry about Thank You cards
Say “thank you,” of course. But don’t feel like you have to send a written thank you each time. They understand that you are swamped.
Ask if they would like their containers returned
Often, when people bring a meal, it’s in disposable plastic ware. People usually intend for you to keep it or toss it. But to be sure you know how to deal with it, ask. That way, you need not worry about whether you’re expected to get it back to them. If you are, put it in a bag with their name on it and return it when it is convenient. A few times, I’ve found Rubbermaid dishes in my closet and wondered where they came from. So, the name helps.
Don’t sweat it!
The overarching theme here is to not worry about the usual rules of etiquette when getting help. You have other things that are on the top of your priority list and your family and friends understand that.
It is a blessing to be helped, and a greater on to help a friend in need.
In my next post, I’ll share some specific ideas for helping a friend with a life altering illness. In the meantime, check out my book, Facing Cancer as a Friend: How to Support Someone Who Has Cancer.
I am an author, writer, and speaker and homeschooling mom of 3. Since my husband, Dan was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer in 2012, I’ve focused my writing and speaking on helping cancer patients and their families advocate for themselves and live life to the fullest, in spite of their illness.
My goal is to help people face cancer with grace.
My book Facing Cancer as a Friend: How to Support Someone Who Has Cancer, is available on Amazon.com