There are dozens of practical ways to help a loved one who is seriously ill.
Many of these suggestions come from patients, their families, and experienced caregivers. Support comes in many different forms and means different things to different people, so don't forget to personalize these ideas and come up with your own customized ways to help. Above everything else, remember how important it is to show that you care.
Bring complete meals to the family.
Consider using plastic, foil, or other disposable containers. Family members can simply discard them and won't need to worry about washing them or how and when to return them. To spare the family returning dozens of phone calls, one person should coordinate this effort. This person can inform friends of food allergies or preferences and schedule meals. Writing out a weekly schedule of who is bringing what eliminates duplication and helps the family keep things straight when they thank people later.
Help with housework.
After my mom's initial diagnosis and surgery, a group of women at her church arranged and paid for a cleaning lady to come once a month during the six months of debilitating chemotherapy treatments that followed.
Help with yardwork.
If you see that the lawn needs mowing, mow it. You can rake leaves, weed, water the grass-whatever needs to be done.
Run errands and shop.
Mail packages or letters, pick up prescriptions at the drug store, and buy needed grocery items. One lady always called us before heading out the door to do her grocery shopping. We almost always needed something, and she bought it for us. When she brought it over, she made a note of how much it cost, and we paid her back later.
Offer to take care of patient's children, or of the patient's family.
You could take them to the zoo or McDonald's, or just watch them for a few short hours. Driving kids to school, lessons, or other activities would undoubtedly be of great help. Be sensitive to parents who feel pulled in two directions. Because of guilt or not wanting to put you out, they may have a difficult time letting go of their kids.
Write a letter or send a special card of encouragement, or gift.
When my mom couldn't read the cards herself, we read them to her and showed her the front of each one. Every day she looked forward to our afternoon reading session. Afterwards, we left the cards by her bedside for her to go through later. Those cards reinforced her belief that people really cared for her. We all enjoyed reading letters sharing memories of the past and the selected Bible verses that friends sent to comfort us. One son wrote to all of his father's longtime friends and asked them to write him letters recalling old, fun times and encouraging him. His ailing father appreciated this tremendously.
Bring a magazine or book for the patient to read.
Bring fresh cut flowers, potted plants, or a silk flower arrangement.
Before you bring live plants or flowers, find out if there are any restrictions or preferences the patient may have. My mom couldn't have live plants around after her chemotherapy treatment. Another woman was adamant that no one send her flowers because she felt that flowers made the room look like a funeral parlor.
Bring nature to your loved one.
One of my mom's friends who regularly sent her cards would often enclose a dried, pressed flower from her garden. What a special memento!
Send a care package.
It could include a special memento, a tape or CD, an encouraging sermon on tape, a book, a framed picture of the two of you, or other small gift.
Help your loved one look nice.
You could wash, brush, or curl a woman's hair, or give her a manicure or pedicure. Find out what would make her feel really good about herself and her appearance. You could help a man by holding a mirror so he can shave in bed, or give him a bottle of his favorite cologne.
Give your loved one a gift certificate for a massage.
Call and visit frequently.
Keep phone calls and visits brief unless you are asked to stay or you sense you are needed. Respect privacy.
Offer to help file medical bills and insurance claims.
This is such an important task, but it's often neglected or done poorly when there is so much else going on. If you are an organized, detail-oriented person, you could spare the family an onerous task and save the patient and the family money.
Fill up their car with gas and have it washed and waxed.
Offer to go with the patient to a doctor's appointment or therapy.
Having someone to wait with in the lobby or waiting room can be a big relief. You may want to bring a book to read so that the patient does not feel obligated to talk with you the whole time.
Offer to write for them.
You could write out thank-you notes or anything else they might want you to do.
Send a balloon bouquet.
Children are not the only ones who love them! You could bring just one special balloon to your loved one when you visit. It's a great icebreaker.
Create a special basket of lotions and personal care products.
Skin can get very dry in a hospital environment. Be sure to check beforehand if the person is allergic or sensitive to any perfumes, dyes, or other ingredients.
Bring a coffee mug filled individual packets of gourmet coffee, or a teacup with herb teas. v
You could add cinnamon sticks, biscotti, or hot chocolate packets.
Help your loved one stay in touch with church, local, and national news.
Clip newspaper articles of interest, save cartoons, or collect church bulletins.
Bring a stuffed animal.
Most people appreciate them - even men! They can be soft companions in a hospital bed.
Excerpted from Life on Hold, copyright 2001 by Laurel Seiler Brunvoll and David G. Seiler. Used by permission of Multnomah Publishers, Inc., Sisters, Or., 1-800-929-0910. Excerpt may not be reproduced without the prior written consent of Multnomah Publishers, Inc.
Laurel Seiler Brunvoll is owner of Writing Solutions, a writing and public relations firm based in Maryland. She has had more than 650 articles published in both national and local magazines and newspapers. She lives in Maryland with her husband Steven and two sons. David G. Seiler, Ph.D., is chief of the Semiconductor Electronics Division, Electronics and Electrical Engineering Laboratory, at the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Gaithersburg, Maryland. He lives in Maryland and was recently selected to receive a Purdue School of Science Distinguished Alumni Award.
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