How (and if) to help ailing neighbors
April 17, 2012 5:01 PM   Subscribe

How to offer help to ailing neighbors (and if to offer help at all).

I live in a mid-sized US Midwestern suburban neighborhood where I know and am friendly with everyone my street. Three of my neighbors are ill. One is elderly, and two have chronic diseases that keep them housebound. They each have spouses and children who visit and assist them. I've spoken with all of them a few times in the two years I've lived here and am on a waving basis with the healthy partners in the couples.

I work from home and am able-bodied, and would like to help my neighbors and their families in any way I can. However, I don't know a) how to offer my help, b) if my help would be appreciated and c) what that help might be.

My questions:

1. What's the best way to offer my help and let me neighbors know that I'm home during the day, and generally available to help? I haven't run into the spouses of the couples in a long while. I feel it would be invasive to knock on the door (I'm an extremely private person, so my bearings may be off on this.) My thought was to write a note with my contact info.

2. Would this type of help even be wanted? I don't plan to harangue them with offers, but I just want them to know I'm available and willing. However, I don't know if this would be considered strange/invasive.

3. What type of help would be, well, helpful in these situations?

posted by Zosia Blue to Home & Garden (17 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
In these situations, I find it best/easiest to start with an extremely casual offer. For instance, next time you see the healthy partner, you might say something like "I'm on my way to the grocery store, might I pick up anything for you?" and then use that as a lead-in to say "I generally go to the store every Tuesday - would it be helpful to have someone do a regular grocery run for you to save you the hassle?"

If you really don't run into them much, you might do something like drop off a batch of cookies with a note that said "Made extra this morning and thought you'd appreciate a pick-me-up!" and then when they call/write to thank you, you can casually mention that you'd be happy to help run errands or something. It's hard to just offer help out of the blue without making people feel uncomfortable, so a small subterfuge like this can be a good pretext.
posted by judith at 5:09 PM on April 17, 2012 [6 favorites]

I think you really need to be more like a friend before you offer to help them with stuff. Maybe first bring some cookies over and see if you get invited to visit. Then you can say 'I work from home, so I'm generally around during the day if you need help with anything.'

As you get to know them, you can detect from your social conversation with them what kinds of help they need, offer those things specifically, because almost no one except a total taker who will bleed you dry will take you up on a general 'if you need help' sort of offer.
posted by jacquilynne at 5:15 PM on April 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

The gentleman who lives across the street from my (mostly able-bodied and healthy, thankfully) grandmother helps her out in simple ways from time to time.

It started slowly, with him (unasked) bringing the newspaper from out in the driveway to up on the front stoop every morning. And then he'd wheel the garbage cans from the end of the driveway back up to the garage on trash day.

Obviously, my grandma noticed that someone was helping her out, and she caught him in the act one day to say thank you. That opened the door for him to offer to do other little things for her. She doesn't need anyone to go to the store for her or do basic chores, but every once in a while he'll bring her the mail or help shoo a snake out of the garage.

So I'd suggest finding something small that you could do to help them out without their involvement (like taking the newspaper to the door or leaf-blowering their sidewalk) and then let them take the next step to make contact.
posted by phunniemee at 5:18 PM on April 17, 2012 [2 favorites]

Yard work is the traditional thing to do. If you're doing some and sew them just say "want me to run the mower over your yard while I have it out?" Snow you can just remove without asking, no one will look that gift horse in the mouth!

With your elderly neighbor I'd just knock on the door and offer to help. Old people kind of expect that!
posted by fshgrl at 5:19 PM on April 17, 2012

1. Gradually develop relationships with your neighbours. Start off by greeting them more often, walking over to chat when you see them outside, bring fruits, vegetables, cookies, etc...

2. I can't see why someone would feel uncomfortable receiving help unless they a) don't know you or b) they crave their independence and struggle with asking others for help. If this happens, then still offer your number in case they change their minds.

3. Help out by letting them know your typical schedule (that way they won't feel like they are bothering you), give them your number, take them out for grocery runs/trips, take them to appointments, mow their lawn, offer to drive them to places, offer to help by taking the garbage to the curb, befriend your neighbours. And, if they need anything else, well then you would have reached a point where they'd feel comfortable asking for help because you have developed a friendship.

This question made me smile. Thanks for helping make the world a kinder place and wanting to lend a hand to your fellow neighbours.
posted by livinglearning at 5:30 PM on April 17, 2012

Also, check out the "Random Acts of Kindness" site to find out about more things that you can do for your neighbours.
posted by livinglearning at 5:36 PM on April 17, 2012

Try approaching the neighbours' (adult) kids the next time you see them around and let them know that you're available, working from home, that you get groceries on Tuesdays, etc.

When my grandparents were unwell, my father (their only child) spent incredible amounts of time doing very small tasks for them - driving an hour each way, several times per week, on top of his long work day and commute. Now, there were a lot of things he was happy to do, like taking them to big appointments or whatnot, but if someone had offered to pick up some milk every Thursday (for example) it would have made his life a lot easier. I suspect it would have eased some of the strain in his relationship with his parents at that point, too.

My grandparents would never have accepted an offer from the neighbour directly ("Oh, we've got family to help!") but if my Dad had let them know he had asked a neighbour to do it, they'd have happily accepted.
posted by VioletU at 5:49 PM on April 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

Hubby and I have firsthand experience on the receiving, though our situation is slightly different in that we have no family to help out. We are both intensely independent and hate asking for/receiving help ... more accustomed to giving it ... but here is what has helped.

When someone sees one of us doing something physical and comes by and says, hey,take a rest while I finish this up.

Noticing something that needs doing, and stopping by with the tools to do it. Say you are bored or need a project and saw they had one.

If there are dogs, offer to walk it/them once a day.

DO accept an offer of refreshments if offered ... this makes the person feel they are "paying you back" a bit.

Also ... chronically ill people (I am one myself) can at times get to depend too heavily on those that help out ... if this starts being a problem, set a weekly appt of an hour or so to help out.
posted by batikrose at 6:03 PM on April 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

Yard work is the way to engineer a situation where you "just happen to bump into" your neighbors,to have this conversation. So - while the weather's nice, get out front and do some yard work at a time when they're around. (Or, make a show as if you're doing yardwork, putting some flowers in a planter on the front stoop, or washing your car or some similar thing that brings you out to the front yard.)

Then you get a chance to chit-chat and say "you know, I'm home most of the day, if you [if Sally] ever need anything I'm very happy to help out. I wanted to give you my number just in case."
posted by LobsterMitten at 6:28 PM on April 17, 2012

My mother has had better and worse times with her cancer diagnosis. When things were bad, she had a lot of neuropathy in her feet which meant that a lot of things involving moving around were a little tricky. Really simple stuff like moving her paper to the porch or rolling her trash cans back down the driveway [or even bringing in the mail] were a HUGE deal to her because they saved her a real headache and were not invasive to her (i.e. no one really came into the house). Similar stuff is outdoorsy stuff like keeping the lawn mowed/snow shoveled/leaves raked. So I'd think about things you could do from the outside at first.

A lot of times if you ask people "What can I do?" you'll get different answers than if you actually just do stuff. I am also a pretty private person in some respects and I'm not always great at gauging this sort of thing, so I'd start small by strengthening your relationship with he folks so that you can say "Hey I'm off to the store, need anything?" and/or "I'm heading to the transfer station, want me to take your recycling" or "I'm off for a walk, could Rover use some exercise?"

The big trick is, as judith says, simple subterfuge stuff. Don't be all "You clearly need help and here I am to fix it!" but just "Hey I'm already doing this and it's no extra work to pick up something for you while I'm out..." and see how that goes.
posted by jessamyn at 6:29 PM on April 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

What I did when my neighbor was very ill and housebound was give him my business card with all my contact info on it with a note that I was usually around and to feel free to give me a call if needed. He had his daughter and son-in-law around much of the time, but he was wheelchair bound and home alone for big chunks of the day. I just walked over on a sunny day when he was out on the porch. He seemed very open to having a willing person available in a pinch and his son-in-law told me at his wake that it was something they talked about and were glad that to have my number. It wasn't something they would have felt comfortable asking but it gave them peace of mind to know he could call on someone if there was a problem.
posted by readery at 6:43 PM on April 17, 2012

This time of year, offering to mow the lawn is also almost always welcome. If you aren't close to them already, wait until you see a need before offering help.

Although--if you have a garden, bringing over your extra zucchini and tomatoes is always a good conversation starter. Ditto surplus from a bake sale or something.
posted by elizeh at 7:28 PM on April 17, 2012

Oh, and I forgot one other strategy: Ask for THEIR help with something. Low-pressure (get your mail while you're on vacation or something). It'll open the door for you to return the favor and establish that kind of relationship.
posted by elizeh at 7:29 PM on April 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

I think it's wonderful of you to be offering to do this, but may I just play devil's advocate for a moment here...

My mother is the most wonderful mother on earth. She is better than your mother, and yours, and yours, and especially yours. Her 79th birthday is approaching but she is still perfectly capable of doing everything for herself, and enjoys living alone since dad died in 2001, as she spent all her life raising 7 children. So she still drives to the shops and church and back, takes care of the yard (though there’s a mower man who comes every three weeks or so), cooks her own modest meals, bakes cakes, cares for her pet cat, visits the grandkids, has cups of tea, a glass or two of lambrusco at night, and generally potters about reading or watching Columbo or woodworking. So she is doing quite well, though of course we kids all keep an eye on her, visit regularly, and call regularly.

A few years back, mum had a neighbour, Myrtle. Myrtle was very advanced in age and had a number of medical complaints, the complaints of the chronically elderly. When mum and dad first moved in to the new house, mum naturally went over and introduced herself and did the usual, friendly, properly-Christian “If you ever need anything…”

Well, Myrtle did. Now, Myrtle was a lovely old woman. But she was old, and she lived alone. She had a sister and son who were both also very old and they visited now and then, maybe once a fortnight or so. But Myrtle, being old, needed help more than once a fortnight. She couldn’t get anywhere on her own, though I believe she still prepared her own meals, or there was a Meals on Wheels service delivering to her regularly.

Anyway…”if you ever need anything”. Turned out Myrtle needed a lot. Not her fault, of course, and she wasn’t doing it on purpose, or to be a pain, but after dad died, Myrtle turned into a full-time job for mum. Over little visits and cups of tea, it went ever-so-gradually from picking something up for her from the shops now and then, to picking something up for her from the shops always. A little bit of tidying-up turned into cleaning the entire house and tending to the entire yard. Not that Myrtle ever demanded any of this, but it’s just what happens. You think “Oh, Myrtle’s garden is in a bit of a state, I’ll weed it on the weekend, she’ll appreciate that, and I’m a nice person so I’ll do it because I like to look after people.”

So, over the course of a few years, mum became a taxi service (to innumerable doctor’s appointments, to pick up prescriptions, to physiotherapy), a delivery service (the shopping), a cleaning service, a gardening service, a carer (checking in on Myrtle every day, calling her every night to be sure she was okay and hadn’t fallen in the kitchen and broken her hips into powder), a confidante, a source of entertainment (they exchanged video tapes of programmes recorded from the television sometimes decades ago), a recycling service (“Oh, say, tumid dahlia’s mum, do you want this old bag of material scraps/knitting wool/box of buttons/pile of smelly books?” “No,” thinks mum, but she takes them anyway, so that she can give Myrtle the impression that their arrangement is a reciprocal one – “I am happy to drive you to the hospital as long as I get all your old Christmas wrapping paper”), and eventually the one who called the ambulance because Myrtle couldn’t breathe properly and her lips were turning blue.
And so Myrtle died and mum went to the funeral and was of course devastated. Let me reiterate that Myrtle was a perfectly lovely old lady, very friendly and kind, and never asked for any of this – not outright, anyway. She would say “Well, off to the doctor’s again tomorrow, to get my eyes checked. I believe I shall call the taxi at one…” and mum would say “Don’t be silly, of course I’ll drive you.”

This is because the sort of person who offers to help somebody is exactly the sort of person who is going to find it difficult to refuse when small help turns into slightly-bigger help, and from there it snowballs. It’s not such a big deal, is it, really, taking somebody to bingo, or fetching their prescriptions for them? Of course not. You were headed that way anyway, and didn’t have anything else pressing to do, and you justify it a million ways. You’re just helping somebody, and it’s no skin off your teeth. It makes you a wonderful person, and is perhaps even gratifying in a way.

But you know what mum said to me, some time after Myrtle passed? “I’m relieved.” And remember my mum is the best mum in the world. But she was still relieved.

I guess what I’m saying is, don’t not help, but be very careful. I would certainly introduce myself, say where I lived and what I did, and perhaps offer a box of chocolates (whatever) with a card attached. In that card is written your phone number. “I’ve given you my number just in case you ever need to get in touch.” You don’t say why they might need to get in touch, but the implication is clear: I am here to help if you really need it. If you don’t feel comfortable not giving a reason, when I’ve done this it’s been “Look, I’ve given you my mobile number, just in case you need to get in touch…in case there are prowlers in the yard or a fire or other emergency!” You don’t say where the prowlers or fires or emergencies are, but hopefully they get the message – “If the emergency is yours.”

The only other thing I would do for the very elderly or otherwise housebound is offer, once a week, to pick up some shopping for them. If you’re ever in a position to have a casual conversation, I echo the sentiment above that you mention a set day you go shopping, and offer the knock on their door before you head out, to see if they need any bits and pieces. If you love mowing, then you could possibly do that for them once a month, but do it in a return for a cold drink, so they feel like they’re repaying you a little.

But don’t go into the house, even if they offer, even if they offer when you bring them their shopping. “Oh, thank you, but I’ll just give you your milk, I really must rush!” Because going in the house is where it starts. It might be perfectly lovely, or it might be a cesspool and if it’s a cesspool it will weigh on your mind. “Maybe I should over to go tidy up?” You need to be a generous, caring person, but you cannot let them become your moral problem. They have your number and you get them their milk once a week if they even require it. They can get in touch if they are on fire, and you can make sure they aren’t starving to death. But leave it there.
posted by tumid dahlia at 8:09 PM on April 17, 2012 [2 favorites]

My mom lives in another state and until summer 2010 she was alone in her condo. I appreciated neighbors looking in on my mom, although it was my mom who established those connections on her own. I don't think anyone OFFERED to look in on her.

That said, I'm completely with tumid dahlia that the neighbors are not your problem. There's a real potential for you to get taken advantage of here; that is a sad fact of modern life. You already have a job and that's not that easy to come by these days. TD's suggestions all make a lot of sense to me. Also, doing nothing other than just being a good, quiet, respectful neighbor is a completely honorable option.
posted by Currer Belfry at 5:35 AM on April 18, 2012

My neighbor at the end of the block is in a wheelchair, and her out-of-town family have asked the immediate neighbors if they could keep an eye on the house during the day, and call the police and the eldest son if we see something suspect like prowlers, smoke or other concerns.

You could offer this type of neighborly assistance, as it is not intrusive and generally quite easy to handle on your end as well.
posted by lstanley at 5:52 AM on April 18, 2012

Thank you - this is exactly what I needed. I couldn't articulate why a direct offer didn't seem right, but it's just as you said...people generally won't say "yes" to a vague, sudden offer for help. Yard work help seems the best first step for me - I live in Minnesota, so there's plenty of yard work to go around. We're moving into an early lawn-mowing season, so I think I'll start with this.

For my elderly neighbors, I've been over to their house a few times to help with computer issues, so I think you're right that a direct knock would work there.

I don't have a problem telling people no when I feel uncomfortable or put-upon (to a cold-hearted degree, unfortunately - I'm working on that one), so that won't be an issue for me, but definitely something to keep in mind.

Thanks again.
posted by Zosia Blue at 9:16 AM on April 18, 2012

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