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How family and friends can help

This information is about the ways you can support a family member or friend with a terminal illness, and their carer too.

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When a family member or friend is diagnosed with a terminal illness it’s usually a shock for everyone. You may experience different emotions. You might worry that you don’t know what to do to help them, or even know what to say to your friend or relative anymore. But they’re still the same person and one of the things they may want most is to feel normal.

Listening to your relative or friend

Listening to your relative or friend is important. You may not know what to say or feel awkward because you don’t know how to comfort or reassure them. But often just being there will help. They may not want to talk about their diagnosis at all.

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Listening to their carer

It’s likely to be an emotionally and physically demanding time for your relative or friend’s carer. Often, as well as seeing the person they’re caring for become more ill, they may be dealing with complex applications for benefits or having frustrating experiences accessing health services.

They may need someone to listen to them let off steam. Sit down for a cup of tea and a chat, if they have a few minutes to spare. Ask them about the things they like and enjoy, which they may not have had time to do recently but could get pleasure from talking about.

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Practical help

If you visit a friend or relative who is ill and you can see their carer is very busy, offer to bring them something to drink or to wash the dishes.

Carers have told us that what they find most helpful is when a family member or friend can perform small practical tasks that they would otherwise need to do themselves.

Here are some activities you can do to help:

  • making a meal
  • doing the washing up
  • doing the laundry
  • doing the weekly shopping
  • watering the plants
  • mowing the lawn
  • weeding the garden
  • cleaning and vacuuming
  • posting forms and applications
  • returning library books and audio books
  • any small task that saves the carer a little time and energy

If you have a special skill, see if it could be of use. For example, if you have a good head for figures you could help the carer with financial forms. If you can bake, make a cake or some biscuits for your visit.

The internet is a good resource for discovering ways to be supportive. A site called Pinterest allows users to share ideas and tips using online pinboards, and several offer suggestions on how to support   a relative or friend with a terminal illness and their carer.

Offering your support

Remember it’s important to offer before you do these things. Your relative or friend, or their carer, may feel a lack of control if you start doing things for them without asking first.

Offers of help usually work best if you identify specific tasks you could do, rather than asking a general question. Asking “Can I walk the dog?” or “Can I do the shopping?”, for example, rather than “Is there anything I can do?”

If your relative or friend or their carer refuses your help, respect their wishes. But don’t be afraid to offer support again in future, as they may find it very helpful at a later stage.

You could also think of other ways you can support them – someone might not feel comfortable having you do their washing up, but wouldn’t mind you mowing the lawn or returning library books.

Organising who does what, when

It’s a good idea to create a rota if several different people want to do practical things to help. There’s also a phone app you can download   from Carers UK for £2.99, that helps people coordinate the care of a friend or relative.

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Giving your family member or friend space

Sometimes your family member or friend will just want a bit of time on their own. Make sure you’re not tiring or overwhelming the person who is ill by talking, tidying or just moving around in their room too much.

In the later stages of their illness, they’re likely to be spending a lot of time in one room. Remember that although they may enjoy having company, it’s also their personal space.

A good approach could be to sit with your friend or relative, reading or doing another quiet activity. You’ll be there if they need you or would like to have a conversation. This may allow their main carer to have a break.

Give your relative or friend the opportunity to enjoy activities they like doing by themselves, like reading, doing the crossword, playing Sudoku or being online.

Talk to your friend or relative about how much time they might like by themselves and remember this might change as time goes by.

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Support for you

When a relative or friend is living with a terminal illness it can be a difficult experience for you, too. You might find it helpful to join an online forum or local support group to share experiences with other people in a similar situation.

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External websites

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