By Anne Harding

What can I do to help?

If you care about someone in chronic pain, you probably want to help. But many people aren’t quite sure how to go about it, and sometimes a general offer of “Let me know what I can do” isn’t enough.

So we asked four people affected by rheumatoid arthritis (RA) about the nicest things that friends and family have done for them.

If you have a loved one with RA or any other chronic disease, read on. You’ll be sure to find a few new ways to show you care.

Make shots less painful

When Elizabeth Gallo, 41, a yoga teacher and mother of two, was preparing to take an injectable medication, her future husband went along with her to the injection training.

Even though he never wound up giving her the shots, Gallo says, just having him there made a big difference. “For some reason, it really took the pressure off,” she says. “It wasn’t as scary.”

Support their dietary choices

As part of dealing with RA, Gallo avoids any type of food that seems to make inflammation worse, such as dairy or tomatoes.

Her husband stands by her on the food front, too.

“He not only was willing to eat with me, but he also learned about those things too, so he wouldn’t bring home frozen yogurt,” she says.

Slow down

Alison Whitehead, 48, a marketing specialist and mother in Sydney, Australia, says one of the nicest things someone did for her was walking at her pace.

She took some group walks when her knees were just too sore to keep a faster pace, and people would give her a shoulder to lean on when she couldn’t walk on her own.

She’s also appreciated people “not laughing when I’m taking stairs on my bottom,” not to mention “waiting patiently when buttons and hooks are just too fiddle-y.”

Make a bed or two

Changing the sheets is one of those essential household tasks that can be daunting when you’re in the throes of an RA flare-up.

“When I was in heaps of pain, the thought of changing fitted sheets and sorting out the buttons or snaps on a duvet cover made me turn cold,” says Nina McLean, a 31-year-old midwife in Melbourne, Australia.

Don’t ask, just do it

Actions do speak louder than words. So don’t ask what you can do; just go for it.

“Don’t just offer help,” says Jean P., 52, a church secretary from Illinois. “We will probably refuse. Come over with a vacuum and mop in hand and ask where to start.”

Learn and believe

If someone you love has RA, he or she will appreciate your efforts to understand the illness.

It’s important to know that a person with RA may not look sick but still be in pain.

“It wasn’t until I was practically lame from hip pain that people saw I had an issue,” says Jean, who fondly remembers when a friend researched RA on her own until she “truly understood” what Jean was going through.

Make a meal

Dropping off dinner for a friend with RA is a great way to make sure she has a relaxing, enjoyable evening with her family, eating healthy food instead of ordering takeout or struggling over jars, pots, and pans.

When you’re making a run to the grocery store or farmers’ market, ask if your neighbor with RA needs anything. Or if you see something you know she’d like, just pick it up for her.

Help with the kids

Caring for children can be exhausting if you’re in perfect health, and it’s especially challenging for people with RA.

“Take our kids at times and allow us to truly rest,” says Jean.

When she volunteered at her children’s school, Whitehead appreciated it when people chose jobs for her that weren’t physical, so she wouldn’t feel left out; she also welcomed friends who would help her by lifting her children in and out of the car on the way to and from nursery school.

Give a lift

Offering someone with RA a ride can be a great help, says Gallo. “For a lot of people, one of the first things that hurts is their big toe joint or their ankle joint, so walking is really painful, so a ride is really appreciated.”

Lend a hand

When Deniya Davis’s hands stopped working, her mom was thinking ahead. “She would break the seal on all my bottles then put them back in the fridge,” says Davis.

When someone is having trouble with their hands and fingers, Gallo adds, “any sort of help with writing or typing could be huge.”

You could even offer to dry someone’s hair for them if they have to struggle just to lift their arms.

Provide warmth

Heating pads and hot water bottles are lifesavers for people with joint pain and stiffness. They make a great gift for someone with RA, especially when they have a personalized twist, says Gallo.

Jane Snyder, 47, a stay-at-home mom from Kansas, sewed heating-pad holders for her 17-year-old daughter to wear around her wrists. She made them in two sizes to match the heating packs she found, and they would stay warm for 20 hours or more at a time.

“They were made with love because I really don’t sew, but they worked,” she says. “I even used Care Bear material to make it better!”

Ease into exercise

If a loved one with RA is up for it, accompany him to a gentle yoga class or give him a gift certificate for a similarly easy workout, Gallo says.

“It really can change a person’s whole mind-set about the disease and provide some serenity,” she adds.