Chronic Illness: How to “Be There” for Your Loved One

Who doesn’t wish that they could rewind time to make a different choice or take a different action? I wish I had made a priority of learning more about the progression of Alzheimer’s and how that cruel disease would affect my mom. With greater understanding, I would have known how to be more supportive – especially when she was still aware of what was happening to her and fearful of the bleak journey ahead. While I can’t go back in time, I can do things differently going forward so that I can be there for the people I love who struggle with chronic illnesses.

Nearly half of the US population – 133 million people – live with one or more chronic illnesses. Eighty percent of adults 65 and older have at least one condition, while 68% have two or more. And the numbers are growing. Here’s how we can feel more capable and confident in how we show our support for those with chronic illness.

Do some research

Amongst older adults – those over age 65 – the most common chronic conditions are: high blood pressure, high cholesterol, arthritis, heart disease, diabetes, chronic kidney disease, heart failure, depression, Alzheimer’s and dementia, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Consider which conditions the people you care about suffer from and do a little basic research. Start with a simple Google search such as “living with arthritis” to gain a basic understanding of what it’s like to have a particular chronic condition. From there, it’s easy to find a wealth of information on lifestyle recommendations and resources. In this case, a little information can go a long way in helping you to be supportive in ways that are helpful.

Consider what you say

Despite your best intentions, your words may do more harm than good. Put yourself in the shoes of the person with a chronic illness and imagine how you’d feel if someone said to you:

  • If you’d only eat better and lose some weight, you’d feel better

  • Oh, but you look just fine

  • You need to think more positively

  • Well, it could be worse, right?

  • You’re young; you can handle it

  • We all have our aches and pains

Statements like these tend to have one overwhelming effect: they cause the person hearing them to shut down because they feel misunderstood or invalidated. That’s because they run the gamut from sounding judgmental, preachy, dismissive, naïve, or simply uncaring. So much for being supportive. I know, people spout these words all of the time; that doesn’t change the fact that they are mindless and useless if the intention behind them is to be caring and supportive.

Express compassion, empathy, and support

Everyone needs to feel understood and validated. You don’t have to have first-hand experience of a person’s chronic condition to be supportive. First, remember that you know what it’s like to suffer, to experience pain, to feel defeated at times. We all do, so tap into that universal, human experience. Second, you know how to listen. So really listen. Then reflect what you hear.

You might say:

  • I know this is really hard for you
  • The pain can be overwhelming at times

  • You never expected to find yourself in this place

  • Having a chronic condition like this isn’t easy

  • I know you are taking it one day at a time

Then, be sure they know you are in their corner:

  • I want to be here for you through this

  • Please tell me how I can help

  • Tell me what you need

Offer concrete help

Throw out some ideas and take it from there. Offer to run to the post office or the supermarket or accompany them on their errands. As your own time and health allow, pick up that rake or that broom and get cranking!


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