A lot times when you live in a suburban area, you never get to really know your neighbors. Yet, there are things that can break down that barrier. Sometimes, its a common church, synagogue, family or other connections. And sometimes is a gathering together in support around a family in need. A house burned to ground in our neighborhood and neighbors and friends near and far jumped up to help with meals and other support. In our own life, there has been a continuing very serious medical problem. And again the walls of community indifference collapse and, as Mr. Rogers said, the "helpers" come forward to help and it leads to more connections then there ever was.
So, why? I believe it is our innate desire as humans to help one another. However, the real stumbling block isn't about having the will to help - it's about having a way to help. That is, people want to help, but don't know how.
Sometimes they spontaneously offer to do something that you may or may not find helpful. Other times the say "Let me know if you need anything" or "Let me know if there is any way I can help" or "Call me anytime". All of these are usually offered in sincerity, but for those in need of help they often aren't the best way to support someone/a family in need.
What I've learned from dealing with my wife's cancer is that you need to get to specifics. Either in your offer to help or, as the person struggling, in your request. So, for instance, asking if you can make a meal is great. Asking if you can bring something for dinner on Tuesday - what time is a good time and what foods would you want that you can't get to make now? The difference is in being specific. Families in trouble have a million things on their mind. Figuring out what to say is harder than looking at the calendar for doctor's appointments and treatments to figure out when it works and to tell what foods your family will eat.
Another thing to do is to be specific in your listening. When we were in the lowest initial phase of cancer treatment, a neighbor walking by with her dog asked about my wife. I gave her the "Cliff Notes" version. Then she did the "and how are you?" side question. I gave the short form answer that I was "hanging in there", but then I mentioned getting a bit behind on my yard work, absently brushing my foot across the longer than ideal grass on our lawn. Just to be clear - this wasn't an intentional request. I was already out there looking at the task that needed to be done and trying to figure out how I would do it given my overpopulated list of things to do. Without missing a beat she looked at me and said - my son and husband will come over and cut your lawn for you. I said that wasn't necessary, but she politely said it was not a big deal (e.g. a polite mom's response meaning you WILL be having your lawn cut for you). For the next three weeks, they came over - with a tractor, push mower and edger. I was then able to pick up the chore again having gotten relief for a specific problem. It was specific, it was important (to me), it was greatly appreciated, and it allowed me to focused on important things including (what everyone tells you to do, but never have time to do) taking time for me to rest.
I had a similar experience with my garden. I love growing veggies and flowers, but just wasn't getting to the shopping and labor involved. I indirectly shared my frustration with a friend and next thing we knew she was in my garden with her husband kids planting tomatoes and veggies and even putting flowers into the pots on our deck. I came outside to see them and nearly cried (not something I do easily).
Sometimes an offer might be very appealing and yet you really have to turn it down - laundry is the clearest example. It needs doing and that's especially the case if it's the sick persons normal chore and a totally alien task to you (at least since I was a bachelor). However, the idea of having the neighbors know the answer to "boxers or briefs" or other personal things a family's laundry will tell, is just not as appealing to many folks. That was true for us - for others in need, they may see that one completely differently. My key point is that specific offers or, if you are the one needing support, specific requests are the best way to provide/get meaningful help.
Here's two valuable resources:
This site lets a support network coordinate meals and scheduling. It allows the receiving family to say when they need meals and what food preferences/allergies they have. (e.g. no one eats brussel sprouts in our house)
This is a great resource to coordinate tasks with helpers. We have a special needs son who can't drive and we needed to get him to therapeutic riding lessons and college classes. We also needed "chemo buddies" to drive to/from and stay with Wendy during chemo visits (5-7 or more hours).
Remember, to help, offer something SPECIFIC. When you need help - ask for something SPECIFIC! Nobility isn't helping you - so ask. And think of specifics. Lastly, get a systematic approach. A helpful, close family member or friend can set up one of the above sites for you. We were blessed with an "Angel" neighbor (MW - we love ya!) who did it for us.