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How Can I Help?

woman with cleaning supplies

Two of the most well-intended but unhelpful phrases spoken during a family crisis are:“If you need anything, just call me, or “What can I do to help?”

Why We Don’t Respond 

We all have reasons why we don’t or can’t respond when friends, neighbors or even family members really want to help but don’t know what we need: 

  • When we’re in the thick of caregiving, mourning or worrying, we can’t think of anything that we would feel comfortable asking anyone else to do. 
  • We might think that we are the only ones who know how to do what needs to be done. 
  • It could have been ingrained in us that it’s a sign of weakness to ask for help. 
  • We may think that the person asking is too busy to fit in one more thing. 
  • We are embarrassed about what we haven’t been able to get to and don’t want anyone to know.  
  • The person we are caring for doesn’t want anyone else to do it. 
  • We don’t realize how worn out and in need of help we really are. 
  • We forget how good it made us feel when we were able to help someone, so we don’t give someone else the chance to help us. 

Have Suggestions Ready 

In my more than 10 years of writing a monthly blog for an in-home care agency and my experience caring for my dad and my husband, I’ve had the opportunity to give advice to lots of caregivers.

When my husband was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, I knew the risks of caregiver burnout and not allowing others to help. I also knew that family and friends truly wanted to be helpful. I vowed that I would follow my own advice and not only let people help me but give serious thought to what I could delegate to others and thus lighten my load.I found it helpful to have a list of ideas so I could immediately respond with a suggestion. 

Ideas for How to Help Others 

In my time of need, several people didn’t ask what they could do but came up with creative ways to help on their own: 

  • Having to do more and more of the things my husband, Dennis, could no longer do overlapped looking after my father who was in assisted living. Although that came with some built-in help, a sister-in-law volunteered to assess Dad’s shopping needs—incontinence products, applesauce to mix with his pills, TP and paper towels, personal care products, etc.—and to make trips to Costco as often as needed to get them. That ensured Dad had what he needed that the facility didn’t provide and took a huge load off me. 
  • A neighbor who paid us a visit came in through the garage and even surprised himself by asking how long it had been since our cars had been serviced and if he could help get that done. Just a couple of days before, I’d received a recall notice on my car, and it was also past time for regular service. Dennis couldn’t be left alone, so this dear person interrupted one of his workdays to pick us up after we dropped the car off at the dealership and then drove us back there to pick it up when the job was done.   
  • Several people volunteered to come to the house and be with Dennis when I needed to go out. I said I would put them on a list, and I did call them to come over, even if it was just so I could go out with a friend and have some time to relax. 
  • Casseroles and other quick dinners for two were appreciated until the refrigerator was full and I said, “No more food!” One neighbor thought to bring an ice cream shake that Dennis could enjoy through a straw. Two other neighbors brought chocolate that was really for me.  
  • When we had to move Dennis to a memory care facility rather suddenly, a son’s neighbor offered the use of his truck to haul the needed furnishings from our house to the care center. Dennis only lived eight days after moving in, and again the truck was at our disposal to move everything back.  
  • The week of Dennis’s funeral, “in lieu of flowers,” a dear friend brought a huge box filled with paper plates, cups, napkins and plastic utensils. I used them that week and at several large family gatherings during the coming year.  
  • That same week, a very busy friend spent both her time and money ordering at least 3 dozen pre-made sandwich rolls. She knew I would have lots of family members coming and going and that they could be refrigerated and used as needed.  
  • I was fortunate to have a sweet and capable teenager who I’d hired to help me with housekeeping even before Dennis got sick. As an act of service, she insisted I not pay her for several of her visits.  
  • A friend sent me a daily text with an inspirational quote. Just hearing from her and knowing she was thinking about me was a boost to my morale.  

two older women sitting on a benchShare Your Story 

If you have been through a health crisis or caregiving experience, sharing what you felt and learned can be a big help to someone who might feel like no one understands. It has been an emotional help to me to share with others my experience of losing my husband over a period of years. My research and personal experience have enabled me tosuggest caregiving resources that can be used when family members don’t know where to start or when the job becomes too overwhelming for them to do everything that’s needed. 

Offer Your Unique Skills 

Because I have had experience writing obituaries for several friends and family members, I sometimes ask if I could provide that service to others when a loved one dies. Most of the time a family member has already taken on the task, but several times the offer has been graciously accepted. Do you have a helpful skill that others might not know about? Maybe you can fix sprinklers or take care of a pet. 

Suggest Specific Alternatives 

Think about the things you would appreciate others doing for you if you were in a similar situation and then say something like, “I’m here to help. Which one of these three things would you like me to do? Change your sheets, clean the bathroom, or mow your lawn?” Provide both inside and  outside alternatives, just in case the person would prefer not to have someone in the house right then. If you get a “no thanks,” leave your phone number.  

I found more ideas for how to help from the comments section of this article on the CaringBridge website:

How to Help During a Health Crisis | CaringBridge 

It’s not wrong to ask, “What can I do to help?” or to say, “Call me if you need anything.” It’s always nice to know that people are willing and able to help. But if the person you want to help is feeling too overwhelmed or embarrassed to ask, making a specific offer of how you can help can be a very welcome gift of time and emotional support. 

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Last Updated: 12/5/23