Virginia Ironside's Dilemmas: A helper I wish would stop helping

I have cancer, but have started to dread the assistance of one friend

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Dear Virginia,

I’m having treatment for cancer and as I’m feeling very weak and low, a friend kindly comes and helps me a couple of hours a week. The problem is that she insists on doing everything her way. She’s rearranged my cupboards, buys cleaning products I don’t like, such as bleach and caustic soda, and when she mowed the lawn and I asked her to keep parts of it long, she snapped: “Who’s mowing this lawn, you or me?” I almost dread her coming now, and think I’d rather live in squalor until I’m better. How can I get her to stop coming round? I feel so ungrateful.

Yours sincerely, Elena

Virginia says...

My heart bleeds for you. It’s bad enough having cancer, even worse having chemotherapy too, but to be “helped” by such an abusive control-freak is really beyond-belief ghastly.

Helping other people is an art, and not everyone is blessed with the skill. So often have I asked someone to do my shopping when ill, only to find that they have bought the “wrong bananas” or a giant jar of coffee that won’t fit on any of my shelves, tinned pears in juice rather than syrup, orange juice made from concentrate rather than fresh, that these days I would rather hobble out to the shops on my own, dragging my drip and wheeling the oxygen canister on a trolley behind me, than get someone else to do it.

But there are people who will obey orders to the letter, if asked kindly enough. And better to have one of those helping you for half an hour once a fortnight than someone like your crass friend for two hours a week. Because if a sick person asks for Tetley Earl Grey teabags and not Typhoo, then Tetley is what they mean. Nothing else is right. And if they wish to have the lawn hand-snipped with scissors around the edges, this is what you must do, whether it’s mad or not. Because they’re the ill one and you are the fit one, and what you are there to do is what they want, however outrageous, not what you want.

What makes it all the harder to stand up to your friend is the fact that you’re ill and feeling ghastly. So I would confide in a friend and have them round when you give this “helper” her marching orders.

You might try: “My doctor says that at this stage I must start to do things for myself and not rely on anyone else, so I think I should start, from today, giving it a go.” Or even the direct lie: “I’m feeling so much better now, I really don’t need any more help, though you’ve been an angel and I don’t know what I would have done without you.” If you’re too ill to pull this off, then say that she’s done quite enough and it’s someone else’s turn now, and present your friend as the new carer because, say, you couldn’t possibly impose on the old nightmare a minute longer.

As there is an art to caring – a book called What Can I Do to Help? 75 Practical Ideas for Family and Friends from Cancer’s Frontline by Deborah Hutton includes a lot of good ideas that friends might not have thought of – so there is an art to choosing your carers. Always make sure they are the ones who will not only do exactly what you want, whether they agree with you or not about what should be done, or what the priorities are – and that they’ll never stay more than 20 minutes at the most when they visit.

I do hope you feel much better soon.

Readers say...

Say thank you and goodbye

It seems as though you are becoming more and more frustrated with your friend’s assistance, despite her best intentions. To keep from any confrontation, it might be best to keep things simple: buy her a nice gift – which could be delivered directly to her home – to say thank you for all her help during this difficult time for you.

Let her know in a card that you feel the time is right for you to regain some independence around the home, but that  you would still like to see her for social companionship, if that’s what you would like.

Friends come in all shapes and sizes and sometimes, during times of illness and stress, their “quirks” can become quite tiresome very quickly. I am sure you don’t wish to lose her friendship entirely and maybe it would be worth hiring a house-cleaner whilst you’re ill so that the lines and boundaries of the friendship remain secure.

Bev Hughes, by email


Get a cleaner and let your friend be a friend

We all have our ways of doing things. Only with paid professional cleaning could you make choices that don’t offend or cause tension in this lopsided situation.

If this person is a close friend, it could be that they are feeling scared and frightened for you, possessive and protective, so this might account for her responses being as caustic as her cleaning products! Also, “cleaning” might be a safe, slightly distanced way of being involved and showing that she cares, without having to face up to the cancer.

Above all, it seems such a shame that a friend would only see you, at this difficult time, in the context of cleaning for you. Can I suggest one or all of the following:

1) Buy in the products you want used and gently explain that harsh products can aggravate, especially people who are more vulnerable to their effects, such as yourself.

2) Get some advice regarding any social support or benefit payments you may be entitled to during and possibly after treatment. This might help you employ someone for a couple of hours per week or you may be entitled to some home help.

3) Employ someone, who uses less harsh products, if you can afford it. Explain to your friend that you love her support, but want to spend more “fun” time with her. Plan some cost-free or low-cost activities, so you are not left twiddling your thumbs, such as cards, boardgames, a walk/swim (if you’re able), a film, baking.

Above all, enjoy some time together, minus the rubber gloves.

Jessica Goldfinch, by email

Next week's dilemma,

My friend and I started a business together and, despite our best efforts, it’s failed. I never felt my partner put enough into the company, and he never really had any idea about money. On the other hand, it was my idea, and I worked day and night to get it going. Now we’ve had the final reckoning and we’ve agreed amicably about the money and who gets what – not much! – but he insists I still owe him £100. There is no way I owe him this. I have gone over the accounts and had them checked by friends, but he keeps insisting that I pay him this money. What shall I do? I feel so resentful handing it over when I know I’m right.

Yours sincerely, Bella 


What would you advise Bella to do?  Write to Anyone whose advice is quoted or whose dilemma is published will receive a a box of Belgian Chocolates from