When someone is sick or in the hospital, it may not be long before the casserole patrol comes a knockin'. "Casserole patrol" is the term a witty colleague of mine used to describe the friends and neighbors who bring food when someone is sick. I've been there before, standing at a doorstep with a pot of chili hoping to help. The support of others can help when coping through a difficult time. It's great to feel the love. But sometimes when a lot is already on your plate (pun slightly intended), the attention can be overwhelming. So when you are on the receiving end, how do you handle all of this well-intentioned extra attention?
Let's look at some issues that can arise.
Issue #1 : You simply do not have enough time to answer each phone call or email.
Solution: It is okay if you cannot respond to every call. Change your personal voicemail. I knew a caregiver who changed her voicemail to say:
“Hello. As you may know I am tending to some personal family matters at this time. I am grateful for the calls and support provided. I'm sorry I may not be able to promptly respond. Please know that I do receive your messages and your support brings me comfort at this time”.
This is just one example. You can be as discreet or detailed as you would like. This allows you to express your gratitude and takes you off the hook for not immediately responding. You can write a general Facebook post or send a summary email update. Which leads us to Issue #2...
Issue #2: You feel guilty for not responding. You are spending more time than you'd like on the phone or computer.
Solution: Check in with yourself. Picture the amount of energy you have for the day represented in a pie chart. Slices may be spent tending to appointments, hospital visits, the needs of your loved one. You still have to eat, go to work, clean the house. At a certain point, you run out of slices and something has to give. Perhaps it’s the phone call from your neighbor. Yes, you appreciate her support, but if you aren't able to tell her until sometime next week that is okay. If you want to respond to all calls, set aside a particular time to do so. Any non-urgent calls received after that time can wait until the next day.
Issue #3: You would like to take advantage of offers of help, but you feel guilty for doing so or aren't sure how to ask.
Solution: Here's a secret: people like to feel that they are helping. Often they are unsure of what to say or offer. It can be a relief if you tell them how to help. If your fridge is full, politely decline offers of food but suggest an alternative. Perhaps walking the dog, mowing the lawn or running an errand. Maybe ask them to pass on information, sparing you another telephone call. If you have a trusted and willing friend, take advantage and ask them to serve as a coordinator. They could set up a calendar. They can field calls, letting friends know how they can help. If someone shows up at the door offering help, pull them in! Perhaps they can sit with your loved one for the next twenty minutes so you can go take a shower without worry.
If you foresee yourself needing help for the long haul, then plan for it and ask others to plan as well. For some people who offer to help you can say,
"Right now we are positively overwhelmed by the amount of support and we have what we need to get by. But to be honest I think we are going to be dealing with this for a long time. It may be that in a month or two I could still use some help, and it would really help if I know I could call on you then for some support."
Issue #4: The person you are caring for is too tired for visitors, yet you don’t want to turn people away.
Solution: If needed, set boundaries. Go ahead, blame it on doctor's orders for rest. The person you are caring for also has a pie chart of energy. Each interaction is going to take some slice of their pie chart. Set guidelines: “no more than two visitors at a time”, “please limit visits to 15 minutes”, “please do not wake if they're sleeping”. Perhaps you set particular days or times for visiting hours and any other time is left for immediate family only. Visiting can be exhausting to the person who is ill or recovering. By knowing ahead of time when visits will occur, your loved one can plan to rest up before hand or limit activity after as they may be worn-out. Have a notebook that visitors can use to leave a message if a window for visits is missed.
Support from others can be invaluable during times of adversity. It may sound easier said than done, but please feel empowered to spend your time and energy in a way that is most meaningful and helpful to you. Don’t be afraid to ask for help or feel guilty saying "no". Take this experience with you– you will one day be a great support to others as you remember what was most and least helpful to you.
Do you have examples of how you have managed visitors and offers of help? Please share!