The Ultimate Guide to Helping a Sick Friend

This month, our wonderful Patreon donors requested an article on helping a sick friend. I couldn’t be happier, since this has become an area of special expertise for me!

I’ve spent the first months of my early retirement as a full-time caregiver. That definitely wasn’t the plan! My partner was diagnosed with a femoroacetabular impingement: the ball-and-socket joint of his hip wasn’t quite ball-enough, and the socket was too-sockety. So he had corrective surgery. Obviously, getting bone shaved off a weight-bearing joint ain’t something you bounce back from quickly. For him, it meant 6-8 weeks of bed rest, plus 5-6 hours of physical therapy every day, to fully recover within six months

Helping a sick friend is kind of a big deal.

And I wasn’t just taking care of him! While this was happening, a good friend got gender confirmation surgery. They stayed with us for the first part of their convalescence. And somewhere in there, our oldest dog got twelve teeth pulled. It was a lot to deal with all at once! Our house was overflowing with love and pills, pills, so many pills, and also sprays, and ice packs, but mostly pills.

So believe me when I say I’m bringing the full force of personal experiences into this guide to helping a sick friend. More than anything, it takes creativity to be helpful in situations where you feel powerless.

So I’m happy to impart this hard-won adulting wisdom. I hope you can use it to be the MVP of a loved one’s recovery.

Helping a sick friend recovering at a hospital

Helping a sick friend in a hospital is tough. On one hand, it’s “easier” because in-patients are surrounded by trained staff who monitor them, medicate them, feed them, and care for their basic needs. On the other hand, your friend’s illness or injury is probably dire if they’re in the hospital. And being in a hospital creates unique stresses. It sucks to be in pain or discomfort, without control over your immediate space, starkly separated from the rest of your life.

But you aren’t without options! Here are a few things you can do to help your sick friend. All of this advice assumes you’re not the primary caregiver, because that’s so complex and situational. Rather, like a 5E bard, you’re out here shining in a support class.

Hold down the fort

If your friend is in the hospital for planned reasons—a scheduled surgery—they may not need logistical help. But if it’s something sudden—an accident—you can be a huge source of strength by anticipating their needs at home.

  • Connect with healthcare proxy or next-of-kin. If you’ve followed our advice to designate a healthcare proxy, this step’s easy! If not, go do that! They will interface with your sick friend’s medical team and make decisions on their behalf if they can’t.
  • Get organized. The same person (or another) can also be a point-of-contact for your friend’s broader network, letting their employer, roommates, family, and other friends know what’s up. Based on the situation, you can start scheduling visits and planning community support together. Take turns. Stagger the work so no one gets overwhelmed.
  • If your friend has children or pets, their care is now your priority. Your friend is in good hands at the hospital. You can do the most good by taking care of their dependents.
  • Visit. If your friend’s awake, go hang out. It doesn’t have to be all day—it can be for twenty minutes! If you can’t visit in-person, text or send memes back and forth like normal. Laughing, talking, and sustaining connections makes all the difference.
  • Rest. I’ve spent more than a few nights dozing fitfully in an ICU waiting room, feeling like I couldn’t not be there when my loved one woke up. I’m older and wiser now, and wish I’d just gone home and showered and slept properly. When there’s nothing more you can do for your friend, take care of yourself. The opportunity to help will come later, so be refreshed and ready.

Bring them the creature comforts of home

Blessed are the hospital sherpas. Here’s my personal list of the most appreciated items I bring to help a sick friend as an in-patient:

  • Food. IMHO, hospital food is better than prison food but worse than airplane food. (It goes without saying that nothing touches the low-lows of Ja Rule food.) They also often have a pretty wack meal schedule. Dinner at 4 p.m.?! What is this, a Cracker Barrel in Osceola County?! Stick to snacks stored at room temperature, like granola bars and pretzels.
  • Medications. If your friend didn’t plan to be in the hospital, they might not have their regular medications. Don’t actually give those meds until their medical team okays it, of course.
  • A phone charger with the longest cord you have. Hospital rooms can be big, with outlets far from the beds. If you’ve got a six-foot iPhone charging cable, Gondor calls for aid. Battery banks and extension cords are also great.
  • Toothbrush, toothpaste, deodorant, and a hair brush. Basting in one’s own juices in a sickbed doesn’t make people feel great. Weird! A few key toiletries offsets the ickiness. If they wear glasses, bring those too!
  • Eye mask and ear plugs. Your friend might share a room with someone who insists on watching the full six-hour block of Wheel of Fortune. Save them.
  • A warm cardigan, slippers, or travel-size blanket. Hospitals get FUCKING FREEZING. The AC is cranked to the ninth circle of Hell, and they’re stuck under paper-thin sheets that do jack shit. Whatever you bring will help—just remember they may have IV lines to navigate.
  • Entertainment. Anything that helps time pass more quickly is gonna be appreciated. Books and activities like crossword puzzles and sudoku are ideal. Laptops, tablets, portable game systems, headphones, and their chargers are great too, but be careful. Theft happens a lot at hospitals. Please don’t ask me how I know. (ಥ﹏ಥ)
  • A reusable shopping bag. It’ll help them pack up and bring everything home again.
  • Whatever else they want! If they’re awake, just ask what they need.

Helping a sick friend recovering at home

Again, I’m assuming your friend has a primary caregiver besides you—or that their condition isn’t so grave that they need support from a full-time caregiver. How can you be the best possible friend to someone who’s not operating at 100%?

Help by being a friend

Hot take: being sick sucks. It’s exhausting. It’s isolating. Depending on circumstances, it may even be traumatic. Depression-like symptoms are a common phenomenon during and after illness.

People sometimes feel unsure of how to approach a sick friend. “Are you tired? Should I leave you alone? Do you have too many people fussing over you? Are you in the mood to hang out and laugh? Would I be a pest if I came over?” I totally understand where those hesitations come from. But in my experience, the first, best thing you can do to help a sick friend is to continue being their friend.

Ask what they want. Offer what you can. Be present. Your friendship can be the One Normal Thing they get to experience.

Help by picking up the slack

When you’ve been sick, acts of service become everybody’s love language. Here’s what sick people actually need help with.

  • Eating enough nutritious food
  • Running errands like shopping and picking up prescriptions
  • Getting to and from medical appointments
  • Staying on top of housework and yardwork
  • Providing childcare and pet care
  • Feeling stimulated and socialized

Pretty straightforward, right? Yet there are barriers to getting and giving help in a lot of these areas. Here are some thoughts sick people and their caregivers might have.

  • “I don’t know what I want to eat. I can’t ask someone to cook for me.”
  • “I really need milk and eggs. But I’m not gonna ask someone to drive all the way here just to bring me two things.”
  • “My followup appointment is at 11 a.m. on Tuesday. Everybody will be at work, I can’t ask them to take time off to chauffeur me.”
  • “I haven’t done laundry in weeks, but that’s not something anyone can help with! What am I gonna do—hand off a pile of crusty panties and say ‘hey pal, go wash these!?’”
  • “My house is a mess and I haven’t showered in three days. I can’t have anyone over.”
  • “I’m not my usual self. I’m boring and low-energy. No one would enjoy seeing me like this.”
I know it's irrational to be ashamed to need help but watch me be irrational, okay?! Also #GifsYouCanHear. If you know, you know.

You see now why it’s hard, right? It’s awkward to show anyone into the messy backstage area of your life, even if they’re a close friend. So now I will teach you the fine art of offering help so that your sick friend actually takes it.

Help by making them accept the damn help

“If you need anything, let me know!”

This is the default thing to say to a sick friend. I hate this phrase. People often say it just to be polite, so it’s rarely literally sincere. And when it is, it’s so vague and nonspecific that it’s hard to know what scope of help you’re actually offering.

So don’t say that. Instead, try…

“I’m free all day Friday. Can I come over for a few hours? I can help around the house or we can just hang.”

Make the nature of your offer clear. As usual, boundaries are a blessing! This offer is so much clearer than “call me anytime.” You’ve chosen the day, the time, and the place. You’ve set low expectations for their hospitality, and communicated flexibility and a desire to help. That’s an offer your stick friend can actually take you up on!

“I’m going to the grocery store and Target today. Want to give me a list? I’ll drop it off on your porch on my way home; you can Venmo me later.”

Minimize the trouble. One of the things that sucks about being sick is feeling like you’re a burden on others. But it’s easier for your friend to accept help if they know you aren’t going out of your way. Downplay the amount of work involved and telegraph how seamless the assistance could be. If they decline, repeat the offer again in a few days so they understand it’s a standing offer.

“I want to make sure you’re getting enough to eat. Would you accept a gigantic tray of my world-famous lasagna? Or would you rather have a gift card for takeout?”

Offer simple choices. A lot of illnesses come with fatigue and brain fog. Offering simple choices gives your sick friend autonomy, but doesn’t complicate their lives or schedules.

For what it’s worth, when it comes to feeding sick friends, lasagna is my go-to. It’s nutritious, easy to portion out, and they can eat it right away or freeze it for later. I bring it in a disposable aluminum tray so there are no dishes to scrub afterwards. Oh, and cookies! Cookies make every situation more bearable.

“Omfg I just saw Prey. You would fucking love it. If I brought you dinner, would you watch it again with me??”

Make helping a win-win. I struggle to ask for help when I need it. Probably due to all the toxic masculinity in the drinking water. But when someone wants to spend time with me because it brings them joy, I never say no! Also, never say no to Prey. It’s so fucking good.

“Look, I know you’re going through it right now. So I’m coming over with soup. Sorry, ya don’t get a say.”

Don’t ask, just do. During my partner’s convalescence, I forgot to take the trash bins out for three weeks. I was just so wiped, I kept forgetting. Yet every week, I found my bins miraculously empty. My neighbor had seen us coming and going gingerly on crutches, and decided we could use a hand. He didn’t wait, he just did.

Your friend may be too unwell or overwhelmed to manage offers for help or ask for it directly. When it comes to my close friends, I’d rather be pushily helpful than politely absent when they need me. Read the room and go with your instincts. 

Me, helping a sick friend but being way too pushy about it.

Don’t forget about the caregiver

In the first two months after my partner’s surgery, the most common text I got from friends was “how’s your husband doing?”

There’s nothing wrong with this question. It’s totally normal. But it got harder to answer as time went on, because the truthful answer was “he’s fine, but I’m not.”

During my partner’s recovery, I got pretty depressed. His mobility was so compromised that everything had to come through me. I bathed him, dressed him, fed him, and worked myself to exhaustion manually lifting and rotating his legs in hour after hour of physical therapy. To make space for all the work that had to be done, I gave up hobbies, workouts, social invitations, and vacations. Obviously I was going to do what had to be done to support him! But it felt like my identity was slipping away.

Caregiving is exhausting work. 85% of caregivers in American get no respite. A caregiver’s mental distress is pretty easy to overlook compared to the physical hurts of the patient in their care. Remember this: while the patient is getting better, the caregiver may be getting worse. If you’re helping a friend who has a primary caregiver, you can be a real MVP for both.

  • Ask the caregiver how they’re coping. Be direct and invitational. Complaining feels selfish, so we need encouragement to vent true feelings.
  • Listen for opportunities to help. You can offer support on whatever hurts the most, be it chores, errands, or hangouts.
  • Keep the friendship going. Caregiving is isolating, so keep up with visits, calls, and texts. Help them stay in touch with all the things they care about beyond their sick loved one.

The reason this guide exists

Our Patreon community is awesome. Every month, they vote on the topics we’ll cover next. And they chose this one because UGH, THEY’RE SUCH GOOD PEOPLE.

I’ll be honest, it was hard to put time into BGR when this was going on. But knowing we have readers who believe in what we do—and want us to earn a living wage doing it—is endlessly motivating. If you like what we do, please consider joining this amazing group on Patreon. Alternatively, we also accept one-time donations via PayPal.

There are Nurse Joys in this world, god fucking bless them—but I’m not one of them! Us Officer Jennys are struggling! I’m going to try to do better next time and ask for help more.

Who am I kidding, I'm not an Officer Jenny! TEAM ROCKET 4 LYFE.

All this was weird timing. As you know, I retired this spring. On one hand, the timing was perfect. It made it possible for me to live my values and be a caregiver—not just for him, but others as well. On the other hand, I’m kinda sweating. Medical bills aren’t cheap, and insurance doesn’t cover continuous passive motion machine rentals for (waves hands) reasons? I’m feeling slightly squeamish about my financial future. Our Patreon is my only source of income right now, so I can’t tell you how much I appreciate the support. Truly, I’m so touched. I hope I do you proud by turning it into good guides that can help us all grow.

Obviously, all of this advice is shaped by my own experiences as a caregiver. Which is probably more extensive than most people my age, but still limited. So I’d love to hear from you about your experiences. Is there anything important I left out or forgot? Has someone ever really come through for you in a creative way when you were sick? Please tell us in the comments below!

15 thoughts to “The Ultimate Guide to Helping a Sick Friend”

  1. This is all good advice! As a person who unexpectedly had an overnight stay at a hospital after surgery last fall, I will reiterate: Toothbrush, toothpaste, deodorant, and a hair brush. I hadn’t brushed my teeth in 26 hours and when my partner showed up in the morning with my toothbrush and toothpaste, it was like he brought me a winning Power Ball ticket. Because of the nature of the surgery I couldn’t lift my arms to brush my hair, and couldn’t wear deodorant for 5 days, but the toothbrush was the best gift ever.

  2. Terrific article.

    I really like the script that you set out to make offers of aid. I have been guilty of the “If you need anything, let me know!” school of support and consider myself appropriately chastized.

    With love,

    Your (Patreon) Grandmother

  3. What a great piece! Thank you for writing it.

    I’m going through breast cancer treatment right now, and I have to say, the support from the folks around me has not been all I would have liked. One thing I would add to your list is that if you offer help, and the patient accepts, please do everything you can to keep that commitment. Twice now my partner has offered to take me to appointments (this was back when I wasn’t supposed to be driving as I recovered from surgery) and then bailed at the last minute, so it was too late for me to ask someone else. Also, a very big gift you can give the person being treated is just to let them talk about what they’re going through. What I’ve found is that so many people have trauma associated with cancer, especially breast cancer, that they just can’t sit and listen to me talk about it. I don’t need a support group, but I would just like to be able to chat a little bit about all this stuff that’s taken over my life. I suspect that plenty of primary caregivers would like this as well, as their lives have been taken over, too.

    1. Seconding the first part! When I had covid someone said they’d bring soup and then just…didn’t. Like, I wasn’t going to chase it down. It added to my meal planning stress.

      1. Oh, I’m sure! Folks need to be aware that seriously ill people are dealing with a LOT of stress–dropping the ball in ways that may seem minor can really add to our burdens! Being able to hand off a responsibility to someone else and know that they will handle it so we don’t have to think about it really lightens the load.

  4. Would double down on providing respite for the caregivers. They could probably use time off to take care of the chores of existence that are too difficult to explain and sub-contract to helpful friends.

  5. I had an acute illness in my early 20s and was hospitalized very suddenly. I underwent surgery that saved my life but left me unable to live independently for several months. Some of my friends came to visit me while I was recovering at my parents’ house and were happy to have chill, hangout sessions or movie nights with me instead of insisting on things I couldn’t do like bar hopping. Little things like that meant a lot to me. I also really appreciated anyone who let me talk about my very real fear of dying.

    The friend who got mad that I didn’t go to her wedding was…less helpful.

  6. Hospitals provide all the needed meds in my experience. And some patients are on special diets. So entertainment is better to bring!

  7. I am chronically ill and have been since I was a teenager. I also have a suboptimal family and got sick at the time my peers were making adult-type friends and forming long-term relationships. I admire you enormously for how caring and wonderful you are and, it seems, your community has been. But I’d like to add advice for the (in my experience) common scenario where you’re seriously ill and caregivers don’t appear, the ones who are around are limited in what they’re going to do, or you’ve been sick long enough that you’ve run through other people’s patience and available good will:
    1) Prioritize ruthlessly: shelter, medical care, food, and fun in that order. It’s easier to get free food than (decent) free shelter, and even in our hellish medical system, if you’re destitute, Medicaid and charity care can help. If you see the limit to other people’s tolerance on the horizon or if your prognosis stretches into the undefined future, figure out how you’re going to achieve a decent life five years, ten years, twenty years from now. No matter what, though, keep yourself sane and, in some small way, joyfully productive. Quality of life matters, and there are enough hobbies that at least one will be accessible to almost anyone. Find one that works for you – I suggest going with time-consuming hobbies to start.
    2) Get to know your limits very, very well: Journal, create charts, make elaborate spreadsheets – whatever works – just make sure you know how big your energy envelope is, what your triggers and warning signs are, and become best friends with spoon theory.
    3) Find a community: Just like queer people, there are things other sick and/or disabled people understand that other people, even people who care deeply, simply don’t. Allies are wonderful, but sometimes you need to talk with people who don’t need things explained to them. Even if whatever you have is rare, the internet was basically designed to solve this problem.
    4) Get a job. Unless you’re happily married or have a similarly close relationship with a life partner or close family member, expect everyone to have a limit, especially around time and money. If it’s at all physically possible, find some way to bring in an independent income. SSI and SSDI are options if they’re necessary, but the income from those is usually below poverty level, and the rules will require you to live paycheck to paycheck and make it nearly impossible to marry or even live with an able-bodied romantic partner without losing your benefits.
    I know this wasn’t the point of the article, but I hope you don’t mind me taking the opportunity for a little hop onto my soapbox. In my opinion, people don’t talk about disability nearly enough, and it’s usually the long term rather than the short term that’s the problem.

  8. Setting clear boundaries/expectations about the help you’re offering is great advice that I first encountered via the amazing Captain Awkward. Decision fatigue is a real thing in a variety of situations, so taking the initiative to set out a couple / few options you’re already good with is a great middle ground between “whatever you want” and “only this one thing forever and ever amen.”

    I love other’s comments about sticking with your commitments too, so you’re not an additional source of stress.

  9. I had an accident in my early 20s that means I have had several planned and unplanned hospital stays over the years as well as experiance of my partner and other family members being the ones in hospital. This is a really useful article, thank you.

    – My sister sends a daily terrible joke to any inpatients by text. It is an incentive to get out of hospital so they stop(!) but also a daily reminder that she is thinking of you which requires no reply unless you want to do so.
    – Talk to your loved one like they are still a person and not a medical condition. I drifted very far (or right out) of several friendships in the couple of years immediately post accident because all they talked about was how I was doing (terribly but no change) and offer sympathetic noises. It sounds incredibly ungrateful but I had told that story 3 times already that day, I wanted to hear about their new job or the girl that kissed them or whatever, I wanted to be a friend and not a patient.
    – Friends who step up are amazing, my flat mate took out my contact lenses before my first surgery because I wasn’t allowed to move and also removed the sexy stuff from my drawers before my mum and aunty arrived to pick up underwear/night clothes. Another friend visited every other day and moisturisered my feet, depite my protests, as I couldn’t reach them and she knew it would feel good. My aunty bought me new nightwear that met my sudden new requirements and looked after my mum when my dad went vack home to look after my younger siblings. These people are all amazing.
    – my hospital food was awful. All visitors bringing tasty, room temperature goodies were welcomed. Also bottled water, easy to read books, toothpaste and basic toiletries.
    – When my now husband was suddenly in hospital after being unwell/off work for weeks one evening his sister came over to our house after visiting hours and looked after me, by which I mean she ordered food so I would eat a proper meal, took my phone and responded to all calls/messages so I didn’t have to update people and watched crappy telly until I was relaxed enough to sleep. That was the only evening while he was in hospital that I ate a meal and slept more that 3-4 hours.
    – When my dad was in hospital and I was there I looked after my mums phone during the afternoon so she could nap and know she would be woken if needed but otherwise left to sleep (he was on the ‘priority surgery’ list for 6 days, there was a lot of waiting). When I wasn’t there I explicitly said phone me anytime of the night if you want to talk, my phone is on high volume for your number, and I set an alarm to call the ward for the overnight update so she didn’t have to.

  10. I love this article!

    Last year I had a surprise 5 week stay in the hospital, and a lot of wonderful friends supported me through that experience. Room-temperature snacks, extra long phone chargers and a food delivery gift card were some of the gifts that were the most appreciated. One thing I’d add is adult coloring books! It’s a great low spoons activity when following a story is too difficult. Thank you to all the wonderful caregiver friends out there – your loved ones really appreciate you.

  11. This article is fantastic! I had my second spine surgery at the beginning of May this year. I have been tremendously fortunate in that my several friends stepped up to do a ton of what you recommend. I wanted to add, too, that not all help has to be epic. If you have friends that are going through surgical recovery or are chronically ill, little things matter, too. Please do not hesitate if you are “only” able to reach out with a phone call or send a card. One of my besties has a chronic illness and was very isolated and out of it for 15 years. I was amazed and touched by how much short visits, calls, and texts mattered. Recovering from major surgery and having a chronic illness is tremendously isolating.
    Thank you for your good work 🙂

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