7 Ways To Show Real Support To Friends And Family Battling Health Issues

11/01/2016 12:01am ET | Updated November 2, 2016

“Please let me know if you need anything … ”

We’ve all said the same thing to friends or loved ones when they were ill and in need of support. Blogger Judy Schwartz Haley, who was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer when her daughter was an infant, heard it a lot. “I received many well wishes and blanket invitations to ‘call me if you need anything,’” she recalled. “But that’s a hard offer to follow up on. It meant I still had to pick up the phone to call someone and ask for help. I’m still not very good at that.”

When someone you love is battling illness or injury, it’s normal to feel like you’re not doing enough to help him or her. We partnered with Dignity Health to give you seven tangible ways to provide meaningful support to your loved ones when they need it most.

1. Clean Up

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We talked to several experts in patient care, and they made the same suggestion again and again: help clean. While you can certainly clean an entire house, either yourself or by hiring a cleaner, don’t underestimate the power of a smaller undertaking. You can clean one room only, such as the kitchen, or take on a small but helpful task like regularly taking out the trash. And don’t forget the outside of a home, either: in the winter, you can shovel the walkway; in the spring and summer, mow the lawn; and in the fall, rake leaves. One tip: “Be mindful that people can feel embarrassed about their failures at housekeeping,” said Gretchen Kubacky, a psychologist based in Los Angeles. “Start with something easy ― not too personal ― and progress to more intimate things, like doing the laundry.”

2. Read Something Aloud

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It can be helpful to not only bring over books and magazines but ― depending on how a friend or loved one is feeling on a particular day ― to read out loud to him or her, as well. “A person who is battling an illness may have limited energy,” said Faith Galderisi, a pediatric oncologist in Portland, Ore. “They may not feel like engaging in a conversation; and they may be too tired to read themselves, which can be cognitively demanding. Reading aloud to someone means that they don’t have to exert as much mental energy. And, at the same time, it allows you to be a comforting presence to them.”

3. Coordinate A Meal Train

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Popular websites and apps, including Lotsa Helping Hands, MealBaby, Take Them A Meal and Food Tidings, make it easy to coordinate meal trains, which serve to simplify the process of providing meals for those in need. With these services, all you need to do to “conduct” the train is enter a little bit of information and then send out a link to a web page. Remember to check on food restrictions, keep track of what others are bringing and use disposable containers. Katie Griffie, who battled breast cancer during her pregnancy and chronicled her story on the blog A Lump And A Bump, talked about how grateful she was to those who made and delivered her family’s meals: “After long days in the cancer center, all [my husband] Matt and I wanted to do was sit down and play with our kids, but as we all know, they must eat. That necessary load of needing to eat, being taken off our plates, was huge and we are forever grateful!”

4. Help With Children At Home

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For sick parents with a young child, not being able to care for their son or daughter the way they want to is tremendously stressful. When Judy Schwartz Haley was diagnosed with breast cancer, her worst fear was that she would no longer have the energy to be the mother that her child needed. Haley’s friend ― a retiree who helped during both her treatment and recovery ― made sure that fear didn’t come true: “The frustration and rage I felt at not being able to be home alone with my daughter, because I couldn’t even pick her up, subsided with this friend who came over and sat with us. She was a companion to our family, more than a babysitter. ... she carried the baby from room to room and helped with changing diapers and such, and I still got to soak up all those baby snuggles.”

5. Care For Pets

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When author Carrie Aulenbacher was in a car accident, her parents helped take care of her cats. Having experienced what a help this was firsthand, she now understands just how valuable assistance with pet care can be when someone is unwell. . “Stopping by to walk their dog, bring them pet supplies or take them for a grooming can be a great help to one who is ill,” said Aulenbacher. Also, if loved ones don’t have pets, Aulenbacher suggested asking them if they’d like to spend time with your animal. Providing “time to cuddle, perhaps with your pooch, can really help them to feel better. It can brighten the day without having to burden them with pet care.”

6. Be Specific About When You Can Help

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When it comes to offering your help, be precise. “‘I’m available on Friday from 9 a.m. to noon to take you on errands if you’re feeling up to it,’ is better than ‘I can help you run errands sometime,’” said Kubacky. Offering to drive someone to a medical appointment, for instance, can be another specific and tangible way to help. “People who are sick often feel really guilty about being ‘needy’; they’re worried about impinging on other people’s time, relationships and resources. Giving a clear timeframe allows them to see that the offer isn’t endless, and makes them more likely to accept.”

7. Don’t Just Ask ― Really Ask

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“Asking me how I feel can mean a lot,” said Catherine Richardson, but the sentiment, and the interest, must be sincere. Richardson, who has Ehlers-Danlos syndrome and blogs at Finding My Miracle, added that, “My health takes up so much of my time and energy; but, I don’t want it to take over my friendships, and so I make an effort to not yammer on about it. ‘How are you?’ and ‘How’s it going?’ are standard in conversation, but people usually give surface-level responses. When someone asks me how I am, my response is almost guaranteed to be, ‘I’m OK; how are you?’ But when a friend prompts me to find out further what’s going on with me and my health, then I know it’s OK to open up and talk about it more.”

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