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Social Support Systems

Updated: Dec 28, 2021

Relationships are a crucial adaptive aspect of aging. Keeping previous social connections, and adjusting to new ones, can sustain active circuitry synapses in the brain, preventing cognitive decline.

Do What You Can

“How can I maximize time with my neighbor who is living with cancer?”

I am so glad we are talking about this important topic. It must be incredibly difficult for you.

You have taken the first step of support by being there for your neighbor. In moments of crises sometimes the best source of reassurance is a hug or your gift of time. Often you don’t need to say much, but just sit with them, offer to fix food (if they are willing or able to eat), without offering platitudes. Fear and stress are emotional challenges of this disease. You cannot make their cancer disappear, or produce a better outcome. You can, however, help them feel less scared and let them know you are here for them. There is healing power in giving back.

In formidable times most people do not want to hear false hopes or pretend nothing is wrong. Real, honest, candid discussions about the existing situation is appreciated.

Validated measures that meaningfully capture the patient experience across their cancer treatment is limited, but there is evidence that individuals receiving the support of hope, optimism, well-being, social support, self-efficacy and ways of relieving distress have greater health competency, resilience and quality of life. Caregivers who help a cancer patient maintain their sense of purpose, offer help when they’re in inconsolable pain, or provide consistent emotional support, elevate a patient’s perspective across the continuum and forge pathways for empowerment and hope.

While you may not always know what to say to your neighbor—unless you are a cancer survivor—try not to say ‘I know what you’re going through’.

Instead say ‘I know what you’re going through is tough’. Also, conversations about topics other than cancer are generally welcomed. Talk about issues of interest to them, upcoming events, and the future rather than focusing on their illness. Distraction is an option when your friend isn’t in the mood to have cancer talks.

Writing cards or letters is another way to provide support and relive memories of the past. If hospitalized, your friend could be undergoing a procedure, or may feel interrupted by a phone call. He/she/they could be receiving a treatment, getting a scan or blood draw, or taking a nap. Talking on the telephone takes more energy than we might realize. Cards on the other hand are a perfect source of communication. It requires less energy to read them. Your neighbor can glance through the cards when most convenient and rested.

You might coordinate with other visitors or their co-workers (if applicable) to minimize the energy needed to interact with others. While visits are appreciated, your neighbor may not have the energy to tell the same story repetitiously to everyone who visits. (Verify in person visits are permitted with their health-compromised situation during the pandemic.)

Taking care of practical tasks provides needed assistance. Shop or cook a meal when your friend might be too tired to cook for themselves or doesn’t have strength to even walk from the kitchen table to the refrigerator. Ask if you can schedule their doctor’s appointments, or offer to drive them to their appointments. Helping with household chores or proactively taking care of errands is another way to provide practical assistance—whatever seems meaningful in the moment. Ask how you can help.

If your neighbor feels well (and safe) enough, invite them to share a meal with you. Sometimes getting out and talking or laughing can be very therapeutic. Gift certificates are another way of providing little luxuries, or if they have children, or grandchildren, offer to assist with care for a few hours to give them a break.

Other kind gestures are sending balloons instead of floral bouquets. They can really brighten and cheer up a space. Help coordinate ways for colleagues to donate unused leave time in the event your friend has used up all theirs. Some companies have leave banks where employees can donate their own unused vacation time to coworkers who are experiencing catastrophic illness or a life-threatening diagnosis.

Finally, be sure to take care of yourself while providing support for your neighbor. Strong, positive energy, and finding coping strategies for both you and your friend will benefit both of you. Connect with others that know how you feel and can provide referrals or a list of suggested resources.

Living with cancer is not an easy road. Provide encouragement when you can. There are no set rules. Every friendship is different. Think about the unique dynamic with your neighbor and let that guide you as you support them. Keep it simple. Often the little things mean the most.

Cancer support resources

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