"Is There Anything I Can Do to Help?"

Alzheimer's: A Crash Course for Friends and Relatives, pages 139–141

Everyone seems to say “Let me know how I can help” when friends are going through a hard time. The problem with the question is how hard it is to answer. What do you ask for? What would not seem like too much? Our culture reinforces self-sufficiency, and in fairness, we are occasionally rebuffed in our attempts to help. All kinds of psychological stumbling blocks get in the way of accepting a hand with things—pride, cynicism, fear of imposing or indebtedness, embarrassment. But when there's a clear need, it's sometimes worth the risk of stepping in, without waiting to be asked.

The first winter I spent as a widow, I had to drive 300 miles in a blinding snowstorm to get home after a weekend further south. By the time I stopped for coffee, the headlights of my car were encased by a thick mantle of ice that spread across the hood and encroached on the windshield. in the shadows of evening, I could barely follow the road, much less make sense of the traffic crawling around me. I came out of the convenience store holding my coffee and was surprised to see a man squatting in front of the car with a metal scraper. He chipped ice away until two steady beams of light shone through the falling snow. Many years later, I remember the man’s glance up at me and his quiet admonition, “Hard to drive like this, ma’am.” His words and unsolicited help filled me in that moment with a restored sense that life is good. This chapter began with a suggestion to ask, instead of assuming what a person most needs, but there are exceptions. A woman stepping wearily from a motorized igloo was one of them, as would be some of the hardships of caregiving. Here are twelve things you could consider doing:

  • Do you have leftovers from dinner that will taste good reheated, like stroganoff or stew? Drop a few servings by in a disposable container. Have you grown fresh flowers or vegetables you could share? Wash and prepare the vegetables, so they’re “pot ready” or cook them yourself.

  • Is the caregiver’s grass six inches high and sprouting seed heads? Mow it when you can. Even a single time would help.

  • Is it the patient’s birthday, or the caregiver’s? Valentine’s Day? Take by a few brownies and some fresh ground coffee or gourmet bottled tea. Holidays can intensify a sense of loss and aloneness.

  • Is the walkway icy? A 50-pound bag of cracked corn purchased from the local livestock supply store may prevent an accident. Strewn on the ice, the sharp pieces will prevent slipping, and one bag can last for weeks. Birds will eat the corn as the ice melts.

  • Is the power out? Offer to lay a fire; take over hot soup at night or coffee in the morning if you have a generator, or just knock on the door and ask how things are.

  • Do you have articles of unstained, gently-used clothing that are washable and easy to take on and off? If you aren’t wearing the clothes anymore and they fit the patient, drop over a few pieces ironed and folded. It will help when the laundry piles up.

  • Is the caregiver’s car marooned in the driveway by a mechanical problem you can fix? Go by with your tools and get the car up and running. A friend did this for me in a bone-chilling January gale after my brother’s death. I think I’ll always remember with gratitude his frosty breath and very cold hands.

  • Do you worship at the same place? Video the service and greetings from the members. The caregiver can watch when the patient is sleeping.

  • Do you have a book or DVD you particularly enjoyed? Put it in a bag with a loaf of bread from the bakery or a box of microwave popcorn.

  • Did you and the patient ever share a vacation or past phase of life, like college, and do you have photographs? Place them in an album and send it with a thinking-of-you card addressed to both the patient and caregiver.

  • Are you computer savvy? Help the caregiver design a website she can use to keep her extended network of friends and family updated. A nonprofit organization, CaringBridge (www.CaringBridge.org), can help get such a website started.

  • Can you organize friends to help? Look into starting a “Lotsa Helping Hands” community (www.lotsahelpinghands.com). Use the online tools to coordinate assistance from a group of friends. a link can also be found on the alzheimer’s association website under the selection “We Can Help” on the homepage navigation bar. 

Mat Wall, "Must Mow the Lawn" via Flickr, Creative Commons 1/28/17

Mat Wall, "Must Mow the Lawn" via Flickr, Creative Commons 1/28/17

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