How to Help During Serious Illness

“Angel,” pastel gesture & photo by Elizabeth

These are suggestions to support someone who is seriously or chronically ill rather than someone with the flu, though none of these suggestions will harm the acutely sick. This is not intended to be universal for everyone, but will hopefully help others approach this challenging issue in ways that are helpful for the ill and their caregivers. Feel free to comment with your own experiences.

1) Simplify their routine and physical space for rest and safe mobility

2) Volunteer to clean, run errands, drive them places, and care for pets or children

3) Provide nourishing food that’s easy to eat and digest

4) Take time for yourself

5) Listen with empathy and remain present even in silence

6) Gentle and targeted comedies

7) Touch, even a still hand on a wrist can help

8) Ambient music

9) Children’s audio books or reading aloud (kid lit tends to be uplifting and hopeful)

10) Engage the person in any activity that interests them

11) Be an advocate

Examples:

  1. Allow the person to rest as much as needed (our cells regenerate when we’re deeply relaxed as in meditation and when we sleep. We also do our psychological integration during sleep). If possible, gentle to moderate movement, even if lying in bed, is also important when not sleeping or deeply resting since it helps circulation, the lymph system (which destroys pathogens) and maintains joint mobilization. Massage can help if the if the person is unable to move. Respect individual need.

Remove obstacles in the person’s pathway, not only to prevent injury but also to create mental ease. And declutter declutter declutter…I’m not a neat-nik, but a clean environment is critical when one is seriously ill. When the body is struggling, the mind is as well and can be easily overwhelmed by sensory information.

2) Don’t wait to be asked; offer to clean the immediate area or home for the person, same with their pets or children, or whatever they need help with such as groceries, getting to or making appointments, or possibly driving them to a calm pretty place for even a five minute visit if they’re able to leave their bed or home.

3) Well-cooked rice is usually digestible even for the very ill, though ground baby-food rice is an alternative if someone is too sick to even digest soft rice. Consider using organic foods when possible to reduce pesticides or herbicides from further stressing a person’s system. The benefit of chicken soup is not a myth. Bone marrow broth is also rich with healing minerals, glucosamine and other substances that bouillon cubes do not offer. Organic miso is another healing and generally easily digested food. Patients in Japanese hospitals, who had miso soup three times a day, experienced far lower rates of cancer and other post-atomic bomb illness in Nagasaki and Hiroshima than the non-hospitalized population. This is how we learned that miso reduces radiation effects.

4) If you are a caregiver, get a massage, dance, practice yoga, walk, visit a friend, play with a dog, sauna, meditate, play a game, participate in a sport, create, nap…whatever you need to restore yourself. Caregiving is hard work even when it’s not full time.

5) Actively listen when the ill person speaks. If they would prefer to have you speak, perhaps tell them stories or read to them…preferably uplifting stories so the brain maintains positive associations. It may also help to sing. Few interactions provide the soothing quality of song, which may also help you. If silence is needed, simply breathe as they breathe. Following breath, yours or theirs, is a powerful method of maintaining or developing presence.

6) Comedies may help when someone is disabled or chronically ill. Some good ones include “When Harry Met Sally,” “Robin Williams: Live on Broadway” “Groundhog Day”, “Amelie,” the best of SNL with Steve Martin and the like, and TV series like “Arrested Development” “Gilmore Girls” “Modern Family” “Seinfeld” and “The Simpsons.” Anything that provides laughter is invaluable for both the ill and their caregivers.

7) Touch offers comfort, can ease anxiety, and may establish connection even in the absence of verbal communication. Obviously one must remain respectful and empathetic to what the sick person is comfortable with in terms of location, pressure and type of touch (caress to stillness) and a few people will not want touch at all; instead, only the nearness of someone who cares about them. However, even gently holding another’s hand can provide connection that effects the primal brain, thus reducing fear and stress. Massage, even as simple as a gentle hand or foot massage, can increase endorphins. Pressure can also trump pain, which is why if we hit a shin we often press on it to make it feel better.

8) “Music for Airports” by Brian Eno, ambient music stations like Hearts in Space, or any style of music that the person especially loves (this can change with serious illness) can be surprisingly helpful. When everything is overwhelming to one’s system, the simplicity of ambient music can be soothing.

9)  Ask a librarian or independent book seller for good audio books and books to read aloud. The Secret Garden, The Thief Lord, and The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency are engaging audio books. Children’s books are especially good to read aloud as are some of David Sedaris‘ stories. Children’s writing is often uplifting and well-written. Consider Winnie the Pooha classic for almost any age, especially when one feels vulnerable.

10) You may want to talk about pets, loved ones, music, fashion, astronomy, gardening, whatever might interest the person enough, however temporarily, so that they can focus on something other than how they’re feeling, mortality, and the like. I’m not suggesting that these issues shouldn’t be discussed, only that if you can connect them to something that enlivens them, it may be helpful.

11) Help them with insurance forms and companies; applying for disability or other needed resources; and accompany them to medical visits. Illness itself can be overwhelming without also having to track every option a medical professional suggests, or having to remember the answer to every question asked, or waiting on hold till a call is answered by a company, or filling out extensive forms. During appointments the person may want you to speak for them, or ask clarifying questions about medicines, procedures, treatment, recovery, options, that may be too overwhelming for the individual to navigate alone.

I Had…

assemblage horse by Dickens44; photo by Elizabeth

Collies, gold and white                         fist strikes
Running beside me                                palms slap
As I explored                                            foot slams
Orchards of oranges and owls,          me against the floor
Beaver dams                                           hands rip
Abandoned in summer.                        heads off my dolls

Polished maple posts                           legs spread
Stretched sheer white lace                 forced apart
Over my head,                                        by arms wider
A walk-in closet                                     than my thighs
Held handcrafted horses,                   I can't speak yet
Stuffed elephants and bears.            can't say no

Chestnut horse,                                     nurses jab needles in wrists
Flaming in the sun,                               cold fingers bruise me
Neighs soaring in the wind,               asthma restrains me
Swift as a kite                                         muscles tear
To ride away                                           as I lunge
On.                                                             for air

Thank you to the editors of The Sonoma Mandala: Literary Review for first publishing this poem.

She Enlivened

“Self-portrait” charcoal & photo by Elizabeth

Carla Zilbersmith, inspiring theatre arts creative director, teacher, singer and comedian to her final words, wrote and performed her critically acclaimed one-woman show not long before her ALS diagnoses, which undermined the serious interest about to bring “The Wedding Singer” and Zilbersmith to a larger audience.

Wedding Singer Blues Carla Zilbersmith

Carla is part of my self-portrait since she helped me develop hand character for my class monologue. People loved Carla. I loved Carla. There are no words for such loss except ALS sucks! and her own:

http://carlamuses.blogspot.com/

http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=688804606&ref=ts

Gravity’s Haiku

“Gravity” ink, haiku & photo by Elizabeth

I used ink for the first time when I drew this and fell for ink’s fluidity, speed and versatility. I also used a Chinese brush and bamboo stick, so chose haiku for the words, which were for my spouse since that day was our anniversary.

Gravity
in palm's wings, spring-breath, spirals
heart-bind me and you.