How to Offer Help That’s Really Helpful

by Paula Spencer Scott, senior editor at

Seeing a friend or relative in need taps a wonderful human impulse in most of us: to give help. The quandary is that we’re often not exactly sure how to do that. What kind of help is needed? How can you find out? What’s the best way to offer meaningful, real help without being pushy, nosy, or otherwise off-key? Try these suggestions:

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Don’t wait to be told; ask and offer. Well-intentioned helpers often say, “If you need anything, let me know.” But the person in need may be too overwhelmed to be able to act on such a broad, open-ended offer. Better to be proactive and specific: “Can I get you something from the grocery this afternoon?” “Can we take the kids for a sleepover this weekend to play with ours while you help your Mom?”

Be persistent. Don’t just offer once and forget about it. The person in need has a lot on his or her mind. There’s no harm in making offers again and again.

Know that sometimes, it’s okay to just jump in and do.Certain kindnesses don’t need a formal green light. Bring your friend a meal on a certain day once a week, no questions asked. Shovel his driveway after a big snow. Bring fresh flowers and leave them — in a vase, so she won’t have to fuss with finding one — on her doorstep.

Ask for specifics. If you are given a task to handle, get the information you need to do it right. That way the person won’t have to redo it later or be interrupted by a million follow-up questions from you along the way. For example, if you’re providing backup care, be sure you understand your charge’s preferences and needs, as well as how to handle basic care tasks you might encounter.

Offer exchanges. In long-term need situations, look for ways you can help one another. Maybe you trade “parent-sitting” duties if you each have a mother or father with dementia who can’t be left alone. Maybe you take turns making grocery runs. Some people find it easier to accept help when they feel they’re giving back, too. Of course, all of us need extra help at certain times in life — and are likely to be able to give it back in spades another time to those who helped us.

Paula Spencer Scott is senior editor at, the leading online destination for caregivers seeking information and support as they care for aging parents, spouses, and other loved ones. Paula is a 2011 MetLife Foundation Journalists in Aging fellow and writes extensively about health and caregiving. For more ideas about asking for and offering help, see How to Create a Strong Breast Cancer Care Team.