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In Association with

What to Give Someone Facing a Crisis


by Susan McClelland and Susan McClelland Prescott


SEVERAL YEARS AGO, when I was caring for my dearly loved friend Lee during her long, last illness, my close friend Mary gave me a gift of such enormity and good heart that it will always stand out in my mind as the hallmark of doing-gifts.

The "doing"—the pick-up and delivery of our home laundry—continued for over a year and a half, weekly, and in all kinds of weather. She made the mechanics seem casual: she would be going for herself "anyway," so she'd just swing by and pick up ours on the way. It was no trouble.

No trouble! The stops took her miles out of her way with each trip, and I'm sure meant extra pain for her already troublesome back.

Often I didn’t see Mary on either her pick-up or delivery; she always managed her stops as "background," with no expectation of coffee or a visit. I'd leave money and get change back in an envelope with the basket, along with Mrs. Johnson's yellow stick-on receipt for the ironing, all very businesslike.

I'd greet Mary every once in a while with a protest: "Mary, this is really too much!"

"No," she'd answer, her voice sharing the helpless ache for our dying Lee, "No, it's not too much. This is something I can do."

Around that same time, a large packing box bumped its way through the front door, my tiny friend Esther pushing and tugging at its bulk. Open at the top to give room to odd sizes and shapes, it spilled over with . . . paper products and cleaning supplies! There were rolls of paper towels, foil and plastic wrap, colorful paper napkins, pretty paper plates, soap, dishwasher detergent. Even a supply of toilet paper.

"This is the kind of thing you always run out of when you're eating on the run instead of shopping at the market," said Esther matter-of-factly as she gave the final push. She was right.

It was Esther, too, who had earlier delivered a 24-can carton of Lee's hard-to-find supplementary diet with bright green and orange yarn wrapped around it.

When Esther brought these things, there was no hush in tone, no effort to hide the fact that the situation was grim, but there wasn't any awkwardness about the light touch that was possible, either. She managed the perfect blend because she made what she did seem natural; she fit herself into the situation with what seemed a sixth sense: her own good sense.


Importance of Doing-Gifts

Those friends who truly mean "do" when they look for answers to "If there's anything I can do" are the family's salvation when someone needs constant care. Whatever size the illness, whether temporary or catastrophic, there are inevitable disruptions to normal daily life, and it doesn't take a genius to realize that helping the person in charge to manage those disruptions is a prime gift to any hospitalized patient or home convalescent. Many if not most patients worry more about their families and households than themselves, so your "doing-gift," while maybe not the showiest, will be especially appreciated.

Granted, the gift of your time will make the largest intrusion into your own schedule. But I don't suggest that you, like Mary, have to make a couple of hundred turns at fetch-and-carry to be of use. There are dozens of lesser, more easily managed variations on that theme. Here, even more than with other gifts, the trick is to think yourself into someone else's skin—not just shoes. Shoes aren't enough.

I know this because I've had the good fortune to have several friends with the knack of appearing at just the right moment to wave away a nagging gotta-get-to chore. There have been times when, confronting a list of trivial jobs that in my state might as well have been titled "move these mountains," I've thought, "Okay. That's it. I give up," only to have one of these genies take over and keep me intact for another day.
When I'd ask, incredulously, "How did you ever think of doing THAT!" the answer was always something like, "I figured what would help me most if I were where you are."

If I were where you are.

That's the starting point that gave Mary and Esther such standout solutions. These two friends had been where I was—faced with serious illnesses that compounded their responsibilities enormously, and weariness beyond what the word spells.

But I don't think one has to have experienced a similar situation first hand to be able to sense both what to do to ease another's load, and how to go about it. If you think about your own household routine for a moment, and then throw in something else that would keep you one hundred percent occupied, physically and emotionally, for at least a third of your waking hours, you'll have a fair idea of what a serious illness can mean in practical terms.

  • You'll realize, for example, that washing your car would have no claim on your leftover energy.
  • The same with cleaning out your refrigerator.

Picture yourself dragging in after long hours of shepherding your patient through fourteen different lab tests for everything from blood gases to follow-my-finger-left-to-right. How could you ever tackle an unpleasant chorus of nuisance jobs like these:

  • Mowing the lawn
  • Picking up an appliance left for repairs
  • Changing burned-out lightbulbs
  • Watering the houseplants

Now add the ingredient I call The Last Straw. The Last Straw works like this: You're somehow getting through household management, which we all know isn't a breeze at the best of times, when, out of the blue, comes an ill-tempered little gnome—

"Oh, you've got a moment? Let's see what I can come up with!"

He has lots to choose from:

  • Car licenses always expire
  • Library books come due
  • The washing machine breaks
  • The dog needs a distemper booster
  • Junior suddenly remembers he signed up to bring twelve dozen brownies to the drama club bake sale

An illness attracts glitches the way a new white blouse attracts spills. And in case you think such minor matters as these become irrelevant when there’s a crisis going on, consider the following corollary to The Last Straw:

All patients worry.

Worry is one of the things every patient I've known can still do perfectly, no matter how ill. Worry is such a rude companion that it doesn't even require you to be completely awake to nag at you. When you're incapacitated, worry magnifies the most insignificant concerns. You're liable to sit bolt upright in the middle of the night with a sudden flash:

"I've forgotten to pay the newspaper carrier!"

I've known patients who've worked themselves into tears over some trifle that you'd expect to pale by comparison to open-heart surgery or a biopsy:

"I never returned the pan I borrowed from Debbie!"

"I haven't sent Joe Neal his graduation card!"

How could taking back a cake pan possibly weigh as heavily on a patient's mind as the sight of plasma dripping from a plastic bag into her arm? The truth is that Order on the Home Front is often a larger source of anxiety to a sick person than it has any right to be, larger than it would be during normal times.

Maybe this imbalance serves a purpose. Maybe it drives a patient to get well, get up, take over the reins again. In any case, the situation gives you as friend a place to step in, a reason to know that your handling of a chore as minor as bringing in the newspaper on a daily basis can make a real contribution to a patient's well being. He or she won't want you to deliver it to the hospital bedside. It's getting it out of the yard that helps.

Knowing what you know of your friend's household, take a close look at that picture in your mind's eye.


Offering Your Help

Once you find a place to fit yourself in with "this is something I CAN do," then decide how to go about it. Decide how to take positive action to see your chore through from start to finish. This is important because your follow-through can make all the difference in how successful you are.

Compare these two versions of the same offer. Melissa calls her friend Sally, housebound on crutches for six weeks.

"Sally, dear," she says, "I've been so worried about your not being able to get around, and I was wondering if sometime you might want me to do some errands for you. Or something."

Pause for Sally to convey her gratefulness. Then—

"I know I'm hard to get, but keep trying!"

I don't know that you'll agree, but I think Sally could be forgiven for reading the offer as not altogether genuine . . . or heartfelt.

Now consider this version:

"I'm going to be out running errands tomorrow afternoon," says Melissa this time, "and I'd love to include yours. Can I do your grocery shopping or pick up your cleaning? I'm planning to come by with some of our prize tomatoes, anyway. You could give me a list?"

This new Melissa is clearly ready and willing; better yet, she has figured out the logistics so that it's easy as a checkmark for Sally to accept. That's positive action!

Here's another example. This note was stuck under my windshield wiper:

Good morning! Please leave a spare set of keys in your mailbox when you're done for today, and I'll get the car washed this evening. I'll return it by 8 p.m. and leave it locked. Keys in the glove box. Hope it'll add some shine to your tomorrow!

What a joysome note to get! What a lift! My car had gone to seed during the days and days of back-and-forthing to the hospital, the way all cars do. They fill with fast-food crumbs and paper coffee cups, tissue paper and tracked-in mud (medical centers never seem to have "finished" their parking lots!). There had been times during that period when I'd have given up my lunch money for a month to have a clean car again, but I couldn't give up the time.

And part of the pure pleasure of this gift was its decisiveness, its take-charge attitude. If the note writer had said something less purposeful, something like "I'd like to get your car washed for you. How do you want me to handle it?," it's quite likely that the undertaking would have bogged down right there.

It may take some pulling and tugging at first to get your friend to lean on you and let you do unpretty chores. With doing-gifts you may have to take the risk of being just a little bossy, less polite and tentative than you might be in a normal social situation. If you can find the right mixture of light-but-insistent, your friend will feel not only comfortable about accepting, but warm and well cared for.


How To Begin

Try, for example, one of these "light entrees," maybe attached in note form to a bloom from your garden and left by your friend's front door or under a windshield wiper:

I'm yours tomorrow afternoon. No job too small.

Make my day—give me an errand tomorrow. Instructions happily received after 6 p.m. tonight. [Add your phone number.]

Handyman at your beck and call . . . in my jeans. [Phone number.] If it's heavy stuff, my Atlas, Jr., wants in on it, please.

Please leave your grocery list in your mailbox tomorrow morning. Delivery time from me: 4 p.m.
Willing worker desires mending, laundry, ironing.

Available Mon., Wed., Fri., morning or afternoon, 1-3 hours. P.S. I'm GOOD.

It's a good idea to include a small offering like the flower or a basket of strawberries with your message. Then the recipient can feel natural about calling to thank you, and when you repeat your offer, can feel natural about taking you up on it. Once you've gotten your foot in the door and made your honest willingness apparent, it will become easier and easier for your friend to accept your ongoing help without the nagging concern that it's too much to ask.

  • Car care is a great entry level chore because it's practically always needed.
  • Pets and plants need your help too, especially pets. If you're an animal lover, you'll know how they're thrown by a change in routine. They cannot understand, and they deserve any extra attention a qualified friend can give.You could walk the dog, providing it knows you, or simply give it your love and attention for a few minutes a day. One of my own saviors was Dee, a fellow park-walker who took over walking my dachshunds when I was ill, and took away a big chunk of worry—mine, and I'm sure, theirs.
  • You could offer transportation for other members of the family. When there are children, school rides may well be taken care of (but maybe not), but what about music lessons, baseball practice, the dentist? You could offer your services as chauffeur one afternoon a week or for one particular run.
  • If you have been given the go-ahead for the grocery shopping, you could take the offer a step further by making a master list so that the person-in charge could simply check off the items needed. If you intend to do the shopping on an ongoing basis, you might want to pick up a key to the house and get it duplicated so you can put the groceries away, too. That solves the problem of timing if there are perishables on the list and a largely absentee family. Again, if you have thought yourself into your friend's skin, you'll know that this is not intrusion, but initiative.

Relief for the Caregiver

If the patient is in the hospital, offer to sit the house for a morning or afternoon. It's a great boon for the person-in-charge of Home to know that you will be there on a given day. That makes possible delivery dates, repair calls, pick up from cleaners or UPS.

When the patient is at home, you can give the caregiver a great gift of time by offering to sit with the patient for a few hours at a time, taking care of basic needs. Many times this requires no more than your reassuring presence and companionship.

If you're in any doubt about your ability to handle situations that may come up, ask. Too often, friends regard care of an invalid as too fraught with medical complexities for a "layman." High-tech hospital equipment can foster that mystique.

But for long stretches of time, most patients who are stabilized and comfortable require nothing more specialized from a friend-attendant than help to the bathroom or getting propped up for eating. Someone must be there, true. But being that same someone twenty-four hours a day is terribly demanding. If you are the special friend who can put patient care on your list of ways to help, you will be giving a Big Help indeed.

Even if sitting with the patient is not appropriate, you could coordinate with someone who is spelling the person-in-charge and arrange for one of that person’s visits to tie in with your gift to the caregiver of a

  • Movie ticket
  • Manicure or pedicure
  • Long walk together
  • Golf game
  • Gallery tour
  • Clothes-shopping trip

It's your initiative that's important. Too often those bearing the brunt of patient care cast themselves in such a supporting role that the clear need to "get out" once in a while is either overlooked altogether, or it is used up in some related effort—

"I'll just run down to the pharmacy and refill these prescriptions while Jennifer's with her father."

Running errands is not a time out. What you as the gift-giver can do-with careful planning and a healthy nudge—is to provide the kind of respite that refills energy and spirit.

You'll run into resistance:

"I don't have time."

"I just don't feel like going out."

Persist. If, in years to come, you hear, "I'd have managed fine during Ed's illness if only Julie hadn't forced me to go to the art museum with her that day," then you can send me this page. I'll eat it.

Remember, "If I were where you are" gives you the advantage of knowing when to dig in your heels. This business of prying a weary friend away from details of illness for a few hours is one of those heel-digging times.


Help with Correspondence

Offer to write proxy notes. These can be thank-you's for cards and gifts the patient has received or progress reports for family and close friends out of town.

Sometimes writing notes can be a dreaded chore for a weak patient or run-ragged family. But if they can make you a quick list that identifies each gift with a giver's name, and provide names and addresses of those who should be kept abreast of the patient's health or progress, then you can take on the task.

Your notes should be simple, brief, and businesslike.

Cheryl asked me to pass along to you her thanks for the __________. As you can imagine, she's not up to writing yet, but at last report she was _________.

Include only what you know to be true about Cheryl's condition, and resist the temptation to editorialize, as in "Of course, I don't think those doctors know what they're talking about." Remember that you're writing not as you, but on the patient's behalf.

You could certainly offer to take care of other miscellaneous correspondence as well. Write the checks to pay the bills, for example, so that only a signature is needed. Or tackle filling in the insurance forms—always a tedious and time-consuming chore. Handle invitations, renewals, and requests for donations. A personal secretary may be exactly what your friend needs right now.


Researching Help

If you're well-organized and competent at research, offer to make yourself a resource person.

If, for instance, a long convalescence at home is involved, the family will need to gather information on home health-care equipment, nursing services, possibly even modifications to the home such as a wheelchair ramp or bathtub bars. You can put together a list of agencies and contact people who can provide assistance and support in all aspects of home care—teaching the family how to lift and bathe the patient, for example. Other agencies provide services such as respite care, housekeeping help, physical therapy, nutrition counseling, even telephone reassurance calls.

Sometimes such information is readily available through the hospital, but there are still hours of homework to be done on the telephone, comparing prices and ascertaining exactly what is covered by insurance and what isn't. You can help further by getting personal recommendations from former clients of those agencies—a job that takes more time and often involves lengthier conversations than any family member can spare right now.

When your patient is going home to be cared for round-the-clock by a family member who insists he or she can "manage without help," compile that list of recommended nurses anyway.

You KNOW that if 24-hour care is needed for very long, the job will be too much for one person. If you can hand over a ready-made list of names, with phone numbers and sources of your information, with a casual, "This is for you to keep in case you do need nursing help," you will make it easier, if that time does come, for your friend to get over what might otherwise have remained a big emotional hurdle. Your list will be like money in the bank, a comfort as well as an actual resource.

Excerpted from If There’s Anything I Can Do... by Susan McClelland and Susan McClelland Prescott. Copyright © 2003 Susan McClelland Prescott. Excerpted by arrangement with Triad Publishing Company. $16.95. Available in local bookstores or call 800.525.6902 or click here.


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