Let me know if there's anything I can do to help... no really!
February 6, 2015 6:09 PM   Subscribe

What can I do to help my co-worker who's dealing with family illness? My co-worker's mom was diagnosed with brain and lung cancer several months ago and going through treatment with a poor prognosis, and then this week her dad had a seizure. My co-worker is now in the situation of having to be the sole care-taker (both physically and emotionally) of two very ill parents. I'd like to do something to help -- any suggestions?

I work in a small non-profit and really like this co-worker, and know that she's been struggling with her mom's illness and now is completely overwhelmed. I've already let her know not to worry about work, and taken over her work responsibilities where I'm able. When I've mentioned in the past that she should let me know if there was anything I could do to help, she always demurs. She doesn't make a lot of money, which I know adds to the stress.

What can I do that would generally be helpful for someone in her situation, given that she hasn't indicated any specific needs? I also like the idea of including the rest of our small office so she knows she's supported (I think she's worried about how people perceive her taking so much family leave time). My top idea so far would be pay for a food delivery service for meals to either her house or her parents' house (which is nearby), perhaps soliciting contributions from the rest of the office. Anything else that we could pitch in for that would make her life easier?
posted by purplevelvet to Human Relations (23 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
This is tricky. If you were a neighbor or friend I'd say the food delivery was a good idea. But it doesn't seem appropriate to me for a coworker to do. I also would be hesitant to involve the whole office. First of all, has she told everyone in the office what's going on? If you're not certain, then you should not be the one to tell them. That's her personal business that she should have control over. Second, even if you're sure everyone already knows, I would think that a big ostentatious Grand Gesture might embarrass her further, if she's already concerned about standing out for taking so much leave.

I think something less of a big deal and less formal would be better. What you're already doing, pitching in with her work here and there, is great. Maybe taking her out to lunch here and there would be good too. And just talking to her about the situation--if indeed she wants to talk--would be supportive.

Lastly, the "let me know if you need anything" line has to be the worst thing ever invented to say to someone who is dealing with illness or grieving. Unless you're a close friend, no one is actually going to take you up on the offer. It's just a statement that's usually meant to make the offerer feel good about themselves, while having no actual practical consequence. If you care about someone, you should just pitch in here and there where you see a need. You can also ask about a very specific activity--like "I'd like to babysit your kids while you do X next Wednesday. Is that ok?" but don't do the general carte blanche offer because it just doesn't work that way.
posted by mysterious_stranger at 6:17 PM on February 6, 2015 [1 favorite]

Offer concrete stuff. When I was dealing with a dying parent, I had no leftover brain capacity for things like "Think of helpful things people could do for me, and ask them!" Friends who offered things like "I am going grocery shopping on Saturday and am going to buy you soup, vegetables, bread, ice cream, and cookies, do you have specific brands/flavors of those things you like" kinds of offers were greatly appreciated.

Colleagues-not-exactly-friends-but-still-care is a little more fraught, but still, I would say offer specific things (including what day/time/people are available) rather than general.
posted by rtha at 6:20 PM on February 6, 2015 [14 favorites]

I would get her a bag of snacky convenient food and a case of water or Gatorade. You don't have time to even think about eating when that stuff is going on so to have something on hand is really nice.
posted by dawkins_7 at 6:25 PM on February 6, 2015 [3 favorites]

While I agree with mysterious_stranger and rtha that you have to be mindful of your colleague's privacy and whether she would be comfortable with this, it makes me kind of sad to think that as a society we're so afraid of overstepping professional boundaries that we often don't help out people who would clearly benefit from help.

As a very private person, who keeps work and professional life pretty separate, here's how I'd suggest approaching it with her.
1. Make sure she's told others in the office.
2. Casually talk to those she's been open with (ideally one or two others that she's closest to) - see if they'd be interested in doing a meal train situation - maybe twice a week on specific days of the week? Or alternatively, you could all contribute money to a food delivery service or restaurants that deliver. Don't make it an official thing yet, just float the idea.
3. Go to your colleague and say that a couple of people wanted to help in x way. Would she be ok with that? What days of the week would work best (if you're doing a meal train)? What delivery places does she like? Etc. If she seems uncomfortable, backtrack and don't take it personally.

Also, I do think that helping out at work is a really important thing you can do for her, that friends or other family members can't do. Thanks for being that person.
posted by leitmotif at 6:27 PM on February 6, 2015 [4 favorites]

I second the food idea. I think having delivery might make her feel self-conscious around the cost, but you could certainly make up a batch of items for the freezer with easy defrost/cooking. Also I like the idea of going to the store for her.
posted by Toddles at 6:38 PM on February 6, 2015

Thanks for the responses - a few quick reactions:

She's asked me previously to share the update on her crisis with co-workers (as it's hard to share it yourself), so they all know.

Completely on board with the suggestion that I should offer specific things, so she doesn't have to come up with the ideas. Any ideas about what those specific helpful things might be would be greatly appreciated!
posted by purplevelvet at 6:42 PM on February 6, 2015

If she is interested, set up one of those websites where she can post updates for relatives and friends. In my experience the overwhelming number of phone calls to update people was exhausting to a family member until we did this for them. CaringBridge is one such service.
posted by maxg94 at 7:00 PM on February 6, 2015 [3 favorites]

Food delivery: this could be, as you say, some paid service, or could be doing some grocery shopping for her, or just bringing home-cooked meals. My partner's office does this a lot when there's leave (illness or maternity).

Chores: coming over to take out the garbage, clean the bathroom and kitchen, feed the pets, et cetera. Mowing the lawn and weeding.

That's.. I don't know, that's probably most things, really? Getting fed and helping take care of the daily house stuff that none of us has time for anyway, nevermind managing family illnesses on top of it. It's tough to accept the help, but I know I'd appreciate those things.
posted by curious nu at 7:01 PM on February 6, 2015

And for food, if you're doing home-cooked things, big batches that keep well for a few days is great. Soups and chili, casseroles, things like that.
posted by curious nu at 7:03 PM on February 6, 2015

Meals/grocery deliveries are great ideas. Sometimes when you're taking care of others so much, it's nice to just have some personal care time. I have no idea what your budget or time would allow: but a few things I can think of:

• offer to take her to lunch or coffee and just chat for 30 minutes about non-work stuff.

• Buy a gift certificate for a mani-pedi, facial or massage and pair it with a nice card saying something along the lines of "we know how stressful things are right now, and hope that you can enjoy this small gift to pamper yourself - you deserve it!"

• get her a netflix subscription (if she doesn't have one) and if she does, make a list of some easy to watch fun movies available (80's?) and a little gift basket of popcorn, m&m's and hot cocoa
posted by nerdcore at 7:05 PM on February 6, 2015 [2 favorites]

You could offer to look up information on services available to her parents. When you're in the middle of dealing with serious health problems, it's so easy to get overwhelmed trying to figure things out. See if your area has a council on the aging and what kind of help they provide. The one in our area can provide transportation to doctors and they use to offer cleaning services on a sliding scale.
posted by stray thoughts at 7:15 PM on February 6, 2015

If it wouldn't overextend you, I think offering to cover for her if she needs an occasional afternoon off for appointments (or just, off) could help, if she's not able to take compassionate leave (and if it can be arranged).

(I don't know who ought to initiate that conversation, though, depends on dynamics; my old boss [small nonprofit] would have been open to the suggestion. If your supervisor is aware of the situation, maybe letting her/him know you'd be happy to cover if required would make a difference in your coworker's options.) Ah I see it's been covered above, sorry.
posted by cotton dress sock at 7:21 PM on February 6, 2015

Lotsa helping hands organizes support for those wanting to do so for caregivers.
posted by brujita at 8:37 PM on February 6, 2015

My former coworkers did food deliveries in a similar situation and it was a godsend.

Another option that works well and is less intrusive is gift certificates to restaurants that deliver.

You don't have to fix everything -- I mean, you can't, it's an unfixable situation. If you can help out with work coverage and provide a few meals that she doesn't have to think about, you've done a lot.
posted by xeney at 8:56 PM on February 6, 2015

This is a really helpful list of ideas for friends and family of caregivers, from the blog mydementedmom.com

It's for Alzheimer's caregivers, but I'm pretty sure it could be extended to other caregiver situations. Here's the meat of the article, and it is a good jump off point for more ideas on how to help:

"Here are but a few things you can select from:

1. Help clean the house
2. Take over extras from a meal you’ve cooked for your family
3. Do the laundry
4. Do the grocery shopping
5. Pick up medicines from the pharmacy
6. Volunteer to run other specific errands
7. Mow the lawn and/or do other yard work (assuming the person doesn’t use a lawn service)
8. Visit and just let the person talk about feelings
9. Drive the person with Alzheimer’s to their daycare center (if they’re going to daycare)
10. Take the person with Alzheimer’s to the doctor
11. Take the person with Alzheimer’s out for a drive
12. Look after the person with Alzheimer’s in your home for a few hours"

Some other things that were nice for me, beyond the suggested casseroles and gift certificates, which are great, include:

A bottle of wine (if appropriate)
Some nice chocolate or ice cream (I'm sure she could use the indulgence)
A heartfelt card
Offer to help out with any pet stuff, if appropriate
Just a text to remind her she is loved, she is strong, she is missed, and she is a good daughter
posted by Queen of Spreadable Fats at 9:13 PM on February 6, 2015

Frozen, re-heatable, no work nutritious meals. Ideally, can be eaten from the provided container and then have the container discarded.

A bunch of single serve frozen lasagna; chili; soup, chicken enchiladas - whatever they like.

Bonus if you can freeze in a deep freezer. Stuff frozen to -10F or so, even if later stored in a normal freezer is stable for years.

Any family or caregiver, or the person, can at-will have a wholesome meal with no prep time and no clean up. GREAT help with moderate effort from you
posted by BrooksCooper at 9:46 PM on February 6, 2015

I learned an interesting lesson years ago when I had an extraordinary university acquaintance, a foreign student living far from home who developed cancer. She sent an invitation to all of her friends and colleagues to a pot luck lunch, and it read something like this: "So many people have said to me, is there something I can do to help you? Sometimes that's just people being polite--but I believe many of you really do want to help out in some concrete way. I'm trying to appreciate and accept that, because I do need help, although it's surprisingly hard to admit it. But I don't have the time or energy to coordinate many individual open-ended offers. So, if you do want to provide me with some concrete help, come to my Cancer Party, and bring a dish to share and your positive energy."

At the party, my acquaintance had put up a large piece of paper on the wall, with a wide array of tasks on the top--driving her to chemo appointments, grocery shopping, medical research, housecleaning, pet care, all sorts of things. Underneath, she invited people to put their names and the times they would like to help--"every Wednesday" or "5 hours total time" or what have you.

I have never seen a person go through 9 grueling months during which she was clearly very ill, and at the same time glowing with such visible joy. She opened herself up to let other people care for her--not just a few close friends, but work colleagues and classmates and people who lived down the street. And separated from her family who lived on the other side of the world, she found herself supported as she had never been before.

That friend's experience has been the model for me, ever since, for providing care to people we know who are in need. And it tells me that there are two barriers to care for the person in need. One is the way we valorize self-reliance, that makes it difficult for the person in need to accept help. And the other is that the person in need is too overwhelmed to coordinate care from a bunch of disparate people.

So, as someone who really wants to help, I'd suggest you work on addressing those two things. Talk to your colleague and let her know that there are people at work who really want to provide some concrete help. Acknowledge that accepting help can feel awkward at first. Tell her that the last thing you want to do is add to her burdens. And let her know that if she takes a bit of time to think about what tasks she could accept help with--laundry or meal-provision or dealing with medical insurance or anything else--and just writes them down on a sheet of paper, along with the times in which help would be appreciated, then you will handle coordinating volunteers, and will hand her back a list of whom to expect to help with what tasks on given days.

It's good of you to want to care, and I hope you are able to do so!
posted by DrMew at 10:02 PM on February 6, 2015 [14 favorites]

Holy Toledo! Billions of these questions on AskMe and I just thought of this.

A weekly or bi-weekly Cleaning Service.

Hear me out...

There isn't a single thing more useful. Maybe make it flexible so at a given week she can get either her parents' or her own home cleaned?

The trick is hiring a licensed and bonded professional service that can be sensitive in her parents' home, and/or someone who works privately that comes highly highly recommended.

If you go through a professional service, please be sure to provide tip money. The professional companies (at least in my area) pay terrible wages. I super duper advise you to ask your co-workers for personal recommendations. But if you have to go with a professional service, please tip the cleaners.

For all that hassle on your side, having a clean home is just amazing. It is a very helpful thing to provide.
posted by jbenben at 10:26 PM on February 6, 2015 [1 favorite]

Giving her a respite break (if she were open to it) eg sitting in with her foges while she goes out to get a massage or do something for herself. You would likely need to build a relationship with them first. Carers don't get a look in in terms of refuelling themselves. Help to cover her work so she doesn't have a mountain of stress to come back to, a listening ear when and if she needs it. Thank you for being such a great and considerate co-worker :)
posted by tanktop at 12:37 AM on February 7, 2015

If you work at a place where people typically bring their lunches instead of going out, it would be nice for you to tell her that lunch is no longer something she needs to think about.

You could bring or buy her lunch and involve anyone else in the office that wants to help by setting up a rotating schedule if people who bring 2 lunches.
Taking away the burden of decisions and preparation for 1 meal a day would be great. Especially when she might not be hungry due to stresss or can't even fathom what to get because she is overwhelmed.

This also has the advantage of not bleeding too far into her home life because it is all still at work.
You can ask her about food allergies, likes and dislikes, and send all of that info around the office.
posted by rmless at 7:11 AM on February 7, 2015 [2 favorites]

Spurred by this topic, I sent an email today.

"Is there anything you want or need that I can do while sitting in front of a computer?
Edible arrangements, cookie bouquet, chocolates, flowers, etc?
Books, magazines, electronic updates to books, magazines, music?
Dispatch a house cleaner, dog walker, or someone else?

Or the most obvious, just send some good wine?"
posted by MichelleinMD at 11:13 AM on February 7, 2015

Safeway delivers groceries - at least in my area. The actual on site help - cleaning the bath/kitchen, laundry - would be a blessing if your friend is open to the help. A stranger working in the house might upset the old folks; be aware.
posted by Cranberry at 12:20 PM on February 7, 2015

Your colleague is very lucky to have co-workers who are thinking this way during this difficult time. Are you allowed to transfer leave from one employee to another in your organization? It might be worth asking your manager if that would be allowed, and if so, donating her a day or two of your holidays. She will probably need the extra time and giving her a paid day or two would ease any financial worries.

I also really like rmless's suggestion--it's a great way to help and has the advantage of maintaining the separation between work and home life.
posted by rpfields at 2:35 PM on February 7, 2015 [1 favorite]

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