Your neighbor is in rehab after knee surgery. Your friend is diagnosed with breast cancer. Or your uncle, who cares for your aunt, is recovering from a heart attack. Of course you want to help, and show them that you care.
The problem is, we often default to sending flowers or food. “Dropping off a lasagna sometimes isn’t the most helpful,” says Laura Malcolm of Seattle, the creator of Give InKind, a platform that helps people coordinate support for those in need. And trimming the stems and changing the water in a houseful of floral arrangements can sometimes feel like one more task for a caregiver.
Saying, “Let me know if there’s anything I can do,” isn’t always that helpful, either. People in need often feel overwhelmed and don’t know what to request. “When a health crisis hits, everything comes to a screeching halt. Except that life responsibilities continue,” says Dawn Veselka, a radiation therapist and co-founder of the central-Florida based Chronic Warrior Collective.
Instead of calling the florist or cooking up a casserole, try one of these options:
Some people feel that giving cash is impersonal. But Veselka says, “There are always unexpected expenses: food and supplies during an emergency hospital stay, valet parking, co-pays, medical equipment, medicine, hotel room, etc.” Veselka recommends cash instead of a check, since cashing a check can be one more task the recipient has to manage.
2. Gas gift cards
If you don’t like the idea of giving cash, gas gift cards are a nice option, especially for people who have to travel for treatment, Veselka says.
3. Pet care
Malcolm says she’s talked to doctors who have seen seniors leave emergency rooms against medical advice because they had no one to walk their dogs. Offer to care for pets, or arrange for care via Rover or a local pet caregiver.
4. Your presence
Virginia Pillars of Raymond, Iowa, says her family faced a series of health crises shortly after her 50th birthday. “Some people sat with us in hospitals or at home. They didn’t offer advice or suggestions. They just sat with us and at times, cried with us. I knew I wasn’t alone with my grief,” she says.
And health crises often come with hours in the hospital or at home with little to do. “Offer to sit with them to play cards, watch a movie, read a magazine, or order a pizza. Just being there can make a world of difference and take their mind off their health,” says Robyn Flint of Virginia, who has experience as an outpatient counselor.
Veselka recommends asking for a list and doing the shopping yourself. Next best is a gift card to a delivery service, like Instacart, FreshDirect, or AmazonFresh/Prime Now. Check your recipient’s address to make sure delivery is available in their area.
6. Delivered food
7. Help with household tasks
Offer to mow the lawn, rake the leaves, take out the trash, clean the house, or do the laundry. If you can’t do these things yourself, see if you can hire someone to take care of them.
8. Overnight care
If someone needs round-the-clock care, offer to spend the night so the caregiver can get a good night’s sleep.
9. Accompaniment to doctors’ appointments
It’s not just for companionship, though that’s important. Teri Dreher, founder of NShore Patient Advocates in Chicago, says one study found that more than half of patients couldn’t remember what their doctor had told them. “It’s normal to mentally ‘check out’ upon hearing bad news like a tough diagnosis,” Dreher says.
10. A medical record organizer
Celeste O’Connor of Columbus, Ohio, bought an organizer for her grandmother, who was caring for her grandfather with Alzheimer’s. “She was very disorganized and kept losing the important documents of his brain scans, bloodwork, medications, etc.,” she says. “I bought her a medical record organizer to help her with organizing and sorting all of this out, and to help relieve some of the overwhelming paperwork and medical history documentation she’d misplaced over the years.”
11. A shareable calendar
Set up an online calendar people can access to see how they can help. They can choose to provide transportation to appointments, offer companionship during treatments or recovery, or help with any other tasks. You can list recurring options, like the best visiting hours for someone in an extended rehab stay, for example.
12. A wish list
“We build registries for weddings and babies to say what we need,” Malcolm says. People dealing with health crises have needs, too. You could help them create a wish list for things like new clothing to wear while they recover, non-skid socks for slippery floors, or medical equipment like slings, braces, or walkers.
13. Cards, letters, texts, or emails
“Many people told us stories of their own lives and how things felt bleak for a while, but also how they managed to hang on for one more day,” Pillars says. Share your thoughts, but don’t ask questions that imply you would like a quick response.
14. Fundraising help
Deductibles and co-pays for healthcare expenses, plus lost income, can devastate a family’s finances. Offer to set up a fundraising page on GoFundMe or another site — many of these pages are hosted by a friend or family member of the person in need.
15. Help for the long haul
“Pace yourself,” Veselka says. “If someone is facing a long-term health battle, do not overextend yourself in the first month and then bail. Figure out what you can do to help in an ongoing manner.”
16. The opportunity to say “no, thanks”
Not everyone is comfortable having someone else cleaning their house, or sleeping in their guest room.
“Remember: this is about them. Make an offer and accept their response. Do not get offended if they don’t want you to do something that you think is a fabulous idea,” Veselka says. “Roll with it and ask what you might be able to do for them that they would be comfortable with having you do.”