Don’t Ask What People Need

Offer Ways You Can Help

January 19, 2017

Whenever someone is dealing with something outside of the norm, people have a tendency to say, “let me know how I can help.” While those words are well-meaning, they can be a bit hollow. A caregiver is often overwhelmed and can’t articulate the help they need or they don’t want to ask for something the offerer might be unwilling to do.

How do you offer?

Caregiving situations differ dramatically. Some people have short-term needs, but for some intense caregiving can last several months or years.

  • Show you’re trying to understand what they’re going through.
  • Offer three things you know you can do (and let them choose one).

You simply say, “I know you’re household has been turned upside-down. I’d like to help. I can either run errands for you on Tuesday, bring over dinner tomorrow night or help around the house on Saturday. What would be most helpful right now?” These suggestions are all well-intentioned. Remember, people deal with situations differently. If your good intentions are misperceived, try not to get offended. Something that seems like a bad idea today may be a great idea later in the week.

Here are 14 things you can do for someone in need so you don’t have to say “let me know how I can help.”

First and foremost:

1. Remember the person needing care is the same person they’ve always been. They may need help, but they still want to be who they are. If they have always enjoyed reading bound books, they’re probably not going to be thrilled about the Kindle you just brought over as an alternative.

Now the rest:

2. Take food over. Food is always appreciated, just be sensitive to any food allergies or restrictions the people you want to help might have. Take Them a Meal or Calendar Care are services you can use to coordinate food delivery from multiple people.

  • Can’t cook? Buy something from a restaurant or a grocery store. I like to take over soup or one of the meals for 4 that you get at the grocery store.
  • Don’t live locally? Order takeout or delivery from their favorite restaurant. Just chatting about their habits will generate other ways you can help and keep you connected with what they really want.
  • Send staples: Staples like coffee, tea, and cream or milk are always welcome and seem to run out quickly whenever there are a lot of people visiting.

3. Clean up. Most people need help keeping the house clean (whether or not they are caregiving). If you don’t have money to spend, this is an inexpensive way to help someone.

  • Clean the bathroom.
  • Clean the kitchen.
  • Clean out a closet.
  • Help children clean their rooms.

Before you pull out that big vacuum, make sure to ask if it’s okay. You can also mention that cleaning help is something you appreciate getting when you don’t have time.

4. Help make the house more care-friendly. If there is a physical change, the household may need to be reorganized to be better suited for caregiving. Looking at the flow of the house with fresh eyes may give you ideas for how it could safer and more convenient. Just don’t push for your suggestions, or have hurt feelings, if the people you are trying to help don’t take you up on your suggestions.

5. Run errands. People always have errands that need to be handled.

  • Picking someone up at the airport.
  • Dropping off supplies, packages for mailing, getting the dog to the vet for the annual checkup.
  • Returning items brought over by friends.

6. Take over supplies. Lots of times there are many people coming in and out of the house. Bottled waters, Kleenex, Tupperware, toilet paper, dishwashing stuff, laundry detergent, throw away napkins, and plates are often a helpful way to temporarily keep a house running.

7. Fill in as a caregiver. The caregiver may just need a break. Offer to perform caregiving responsibilities for a few hours. Life as a caregiver is hard and everyone can benefit from a little relaxation.

8. Help the caregiver take care of themselves. Caregivers have a really hard time prioritizing themselves. They don’t want to be a burden. They often feel like THEY are not the one that needs help, the person that they are caring for needs help. That’s a cover. We all need help. Even people who are not caregivers need help. Does the caregiver have goals they are struggling to meet because of responsibilities? Close friends can help with this. If I’m in a caregiver situation and someone from work suggests I need to exercise, I’m probably won’t be gracious with my response.

9. Implement a system for others who are helping. You don’t want the people you’re helping to have to reorient you every time you come over. Develop a system for keeping things running that doesn’t burden them.

When caregiving for my aunt, we had a team of people who helped. They didn’t always see each other for a hand-off and we had LOTS of people helping. We created a notebook where we left notes about what was happening for the next person coming over. This helped orient the helper when they showed up to help. Many caregivers have a notebook like this. We’ve seen that even folks who are typically lax or uncomfortable with record keeping kept it up because they knew they were really helping the caregiver and other helpers by adding notes.

10. Help the kids. If there are children in the household, they may need help accomplishing things, too.

  • Homework
  • Room cleaning
  • Learning tasks that will be helpful
  • Going to the movies
  • Getting the opportunity to be a kid

Depending on the situation, this could be a big adjustment for the children and they may not know how to ask for help.

11. Care for animals. Make walking the dog or cleaning up after cats your responsibility for a period of time. It’s always helpful to have an extra set of hands when there are animals in a home.

12. Look for services that will help. As unique as this situation may be to the person you are helping, it’s probably more common than they think. There may be services in place to help someone going through a transition. The person going through the transition probably doesn’t have time to look for them. You might. (Google is going to be your friend here.)

13. Bring over a diversion. Pets, movies, music and cakes would all work as diversions for me. I’m sure you can come up with something similar for someone you care about.

14. Show appreciation for the other helpers. Professional caregivers and family and friends who are helping may feel overwhelmed, underappreciated or invisible. Try to pay attention to how they’re helping and thank them for it. You can even consider giving a small gift. It’s always nice to be noticed.

Many of these suggestions are geared towards someone who is physically present, but they work even if you don’t live locally (or can’t do something physical). For example, researching resources in the area for home health supports, finding someone to make home modifications, or be at the end of the phone whenever they want to talk are all possible remotely. Now you’re armed with some ideas for helping, so you don’t have to say, “let me know what I can do to help.” What would you add to this list?

If your friend or family member is overwhelmed with their responsibilities, you may want to suggest our tool, Is it time to get help?