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
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.”
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.
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.
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!