Giving Support to a Sick Person: Little Things That Help in a Big Way

Do you know a person who is seriously ill, going through cancer, or recovering from an accident? Your heart goes out to them and you want to help them in any way you can. Helping a sick person with every day stuff can allow them focus on their child, sick spouse, relative, or themselves.

After I wrote this article, I became grossly aware of my own lack of action of helping others in need. Unfortunately, many of us make empty promises to help, and never follow through. My goal is that after reading this article, you will feel less intimidated, and feel more confident to lend a helping hand to a sick friend.

Elderly man receiving help from a friend for yard and garden.
Accepting help is a hard thing to do, but help is just what a person needs when overwhelmed with a health emergency.

If you’re not comfortable with offering help, go incognito mode. Leave some frozen casseroles outside the front door anonymously. Send a gas card in the mail signed, “Hope you can find this useful.” Be a secret helper and take care of their lawn without them knowing. The family is in the fight of their life, and they need every bit of help they can get.

Along with words of encouragment, the gift of help and support can be the best gift to give a sick person!

Table of Contents

Best ways to help a sick friend

There is ALWAYS going to be something that needs to be done for someone who is seriously ill and their family. You can offer to cook a meal, walk their dog, or take a child to sports practice. Help them with little things even if they don’t ask. Open your eyes and look around for what needs attention, or notice the things they seem to be struggling with.

As one person commented, “There is nothing worse than coming home from the hospital depressed and exhausted to a dirty house.” Opening up a door to a home where the chores are done, a meal is cooked, and the kids are taken care of is an instant weight off of their shoulders.

Woman walking a dog.
Taking care of pets for a sick friend is one way to lend a helping hand to a family.

Here is a list of ideas that can really help out a person going through a health crisis:

  • Grocery shop or even a milk run.
  • Drive kids to school, sport practice, appointments events, extracurricular activities, other people’s houses.
  • Help other kids in house with school work, making sure their needs are fulfilled (for example, buy a new pair of shoes).
  • Take dog to vet, out for a walk, to the groomer, or give it a bath.
  • Feed pets, empty the litter tray, or offer to foster pets or arrange foster pet care.
  • Offer to watch house while they are away.
  • Take to hospital appointments.
  • Do laundry.
  • Fill the car up with gas and get it washed and vacuumed. Check out the car (tires inflated, good tread, oil level, washer fluid).
  • Tend the garden, water indoor plants.
  • Mow lawn, rake leaves, or shovel driveway.
  • Offer to chauffeur to appointments.
  • Pick up prescriptions.
  • Fix something that is broken.
  • Bring over a meal (see below).
  • Help with small cleaning jobs: wipe down the bathroom, sweep the floors, and vacuum. Wash a load of dishes and wipe the counters down.
  • If the person requires a near-sterile home, hire a cleaner to provide a deeper cleaning.
  • Open get well cards, pick up packages, help sort mail.

Don’t forget providing miscellaneous items such as paper plates, napkins, toilet paper etc. It’s not only for the family’s convenience, but when extra family or out-of-town relatives are around.

Be strategic. Ask when appointments are so that you can bring a meal that day or even the night before. As you can imagine, the outpouring of help can lead to a busy phone or doorbell for the sick family. Your superpower just might be offering help as a volunteer coordinator.

Looking for something a little extra special? Check out the article “Just Right Gestures and Words of Encouragement for a Sick Friend” to discover some over-the-top ways to bring joy into a sick person’s life.

Helpful tips when providing food for a sick friend

Providing meals is a major way to help a family dealing with a health crisis. One cancer patient commented, “Coming home to an already cooked meal meant more than all the flowers and cards combined.”

Friend dropping off food to a family with a sick family member.
Food is always welcome when trying to juggle life while ill.

Follow these tips when bringing food to someone who is sick:

  1. Taste can change because of chemo or meds, check on this in advance.
  2. Food requirements or limitations can change. Many chemo patients are not allowed bacteria rich or risky foods like sushi or certain cheeses.
  3. Chemo patients may feel nauseas after treatments, soups and light food choices might be best.
  4. Be in-tune with their food favorites. They may not care for your vegetarian dish or fancy gourmet meal, and just want meat and potatoes.
  5. Focus on comfort food, but balance it with healthy and nourishing meals.
  6. Send over a catered meal or pizzas if that works better for you.
  7. Plan on meals that are easy to heat and serve and that are pre-portioned for super convenience.
  8. Plan on fast things to grab like pre-made meals (salads/burritos/sandwiches/deli meat) for the family still at home.
  9. Follow best ettiquette: let the family know in advance before coming over.

More on food

Things like a meal train/roster can be a huge help. There are even online platforms like Take Them A Meal that can simplify the planning and coordination (this is a perfect job for your volunteer coordinator). Seriously, set up a meal schedule and let the only interaction be receiving the food.

It’s important to emphasize to well-meaning friends to not hang around after dropping food off. Most of the time the family just wants to eat and are too exhausted to visit. Give garage code access to trusted individuals to drop off food or plug in a crockpot. Even if the family is home, they can have privacy.

In addition, having an extra deep freezer or fridge will come in handy. Friends and family can pool money together to purchase an extra appliance for the garage, or put money towards it.

Woman dropping off food to a family with family member with cancer.
Make sure meals are nourishing, convenient, and fit any special food requirements.

It’s not all about casseroles, either. Pre-made soup packs and cookie dough packs are wlecome shortcuts. The comforting aroma of baking or cooking smells heal the soul. My mother-in-law would always tuck in a container of coffee in her care baskets along with frozen pizzas (take a tip from a life-time pro-giver!). Start thinking creatively and you will soon have a list of winning meal gifts to give.

Boundaries, do they even want your help?

Some offers for help, although done with the best of intentions, can be very stressful to the family. Do not just assume that sending over a full cleaning crew, or things you think they need, are always welcome. Random drop-ins can be very upsetting and unwelcome.

Know your place in their lives. Some people are very private; opening their lives up to interaction with others can be very uncomfortable. Equally distressing is when people they thought they could rely on, or immediate family, doesn’t swoop in to help.

Some types of help are highly individual. It’s best to ask them openly what they need or would appreciate. For more guidance, refer to “The Circle of Support”.

Why people won’t accept help

Just in case you’re confused why your offer for help is declined, consider it from the standpoint of the person in need. People with illnesses who have trouble accepting help go through these stages:

Stage 1: Everyone offers help, the sick person and their caregiver(s) is overwhelmed. They reject immediate help. The last thing they want are visitors.

Sick child in hospital bed,
A seriously ill child or family member need incredible help and support when faced with a difficult health challenge.

Stage 2: Initial shock wears off, a lot has to be handled in a short amount of time, and the sick person and their caregiver(s) struggle making simple decisions. They’ve turned help away a couple of times (because someone else already helped or they haven’t needed help yet), and offers of help dwindle. The sick person and their caregiver(s) avoid directly asking for help, because they feel uncomfortable doing so.

Stage 3: The sick person and their caregiver are barely managing. They are willing to accept help, out of pure desperation. Later, they will look back and realize how all of the small favors added up to be a huge relief. The support of family and friends took the stress of every day tasks away, so that they could focus on their own health emergency.

Don’t stop offering!

Your help will be accepted, don’t give up! It’s the people who hang in there through the last stage that get their offer of support accepted. It’s important to not stop helping, and keep asking what the sick person or family needs. Once you’ve done it once, just continue to do so.

Don’t just be there for them now, be there the whole way. If this is going to take half a year or more, or even several years, this will become very important. Whatever you do, don’t let up.

Note: Depending on how close you are to the person, your constant offers may be perceived as crossing a boundary. In addition, “compassion fatigue” is a real thing – for your own energy reserves. Know how you fit into the friendship/family dynamic, and then put a reminder on your calendar so that you remember to check back with them periodically.

Young man helping a man with walker get out of a vehicle.
Helping others in their needs can relieve the stress and give them the energy to take care of their own health issues.

Say this, not that – offering help the right way

Over and over again, people report that the most helpful action is when someone TELLS them what they are going to do instead of asking the person in need what it is that they need. Decision fatigue is only one part of the hesitation to accept help.

What’s really going on. When people ask what the person wants them to do or what they need, they feel embarrassed or uncomfortable telling them. Saying “yes” actually feels awkward, having to ask for help for so many little things feels disempowering. Their pride takes a hit and they don’t want to ask for help.

From the perspective of the person in need, it’s much nicer if people say, “I’m going to do this,” so they don’t feel like they’re burdening the person making the offer.

I was kind of embarrassed when they offered, but it made me so relieved to have the house a little more in order.

– Caregiver

What’s worse, some persons in need admit that they never take people up on the offer of help.

A lot more help would be accepted, simply on our delivery of the offer. Below are helpful phrases that the person in need will more readily respond to (and not respond to). Offering help the right way can make all the difference.

Be careful to avoid phrases like:

You know we are here for you. (empty words)

Let me know if you need help with anything.

What can I do? What would you like me to do?

Can we bring dinner?

Let me know if you’d like me to bring food over.

…instead be specific, use phrases like:

I’ll be happy to clean these dishes/tidy this room. (or anything else you notice)

I will be over Monday at 1 pm to do your laundry.

I’m coming over tomorrow with dinner, are you home?

We’re heading over to mow your lawn at 2 pm.

I want to keep (insert kid’s name) for you this weekend. What is a good time for me to come get him?

Volunteer coordinators: the secret sauce

In times of a health crisis, you will be flooded with people telling you “let me know if I can help.” While the intentions are good, you don’t have the time, energy, or mental capacity to consider what needs to be done.

Things like picking up a kid from school, walking the dog, or buying groceries still have to get done even in the midst of supporting a sick child, relative, or spouse. When all of your resources need to be focused on the family member in need, you don’t want to have to continue to do errands/business, etc. that take you away from caring for your loved one.

Three smiling friends ready to help.
Pick one or a few close friends or family to be a point person to coordinate help when you have a family health crisis.

Here is where a volunteer coordinator comes in. Pick out your most trusted and capable friend or family organizer. This is where they can shine. Instead of you making multiple calls, just make one call to them, and everything is taken care of.

Whenever someone says “Let me know if I can do anything” ask them to give their contact info to your assigned volunteer point person. Then, when you need something, all you have to do is make one call and get it done.

They can create a schedule and send reminders to people when its their turn to bring a meal, drive you to an appointment, pick up kids, etc. Give them the freedom to figure out what they can take off your hands, and let them do it. It can be incredibly helpful to have someone taking over the busy work of arranging everything.

This valuable person can even make a “time and talents” list and identify the best people to call depending on the need. Or maybe your VC can identify people who can step in at a drop of a hat if there is an emergency need. This same person (or a second volunteer coordinator) can set up a meal train list.

Having a volunteer coordinator in place also cuts down on friends, family, and neighbors making phone calls or bothering you at the worst possible times.

The gift wrap up

If I have left you with anything, know that a person going through a health crisis needs all the support they can get. You really have to help them to help themselves. Doing the small things can be the best gift you can give to a sick person and their family.

Renee Cavvy
Renee Cavvy

Renee pulls no punches when it comes to challenging the social norms of gift giving. Her mission: putting an end to meaningless gifts and cutting through the fluff. This midwest mom offers novel and creative ideas to do gift giving better!