According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, over one half of American adults live with a chronic illness such as cancer, heart disease, diabetes, lung disease or kidney disease. Chronic illnesses are those that last for at least a year and require ongoing medical attention. They may limit a person’s day to day functioning and require many lifestyle adjustments, including adherence to strict medication or nutritional regimens and restrictions on social or work life. As a result, people with chronic illnesses can experience stress, anxiety, anger and/or depression. Understandably, it can be difficult to maneuver around a person who is experiencing such physical and mental stressors. Caregiver burnout is a common phenomenon, whereby those that provide care and support to family members with chronic illness experience their own stress and fatigue.
What are some things you can do to support your loved ones in living with a chronic illness, while looking out for yourself? You may feel unsure about how to reach out to a chronically ill friend or relative, or you might be reluctant to pry. But communication is crucial. Here are some tips:
- Learn about the condition your loved one is experiencing independently, so when they try to talk to you about it, you are not totally clueless.
- But also understand that a person might experience the same condition very differently, so avoid rushing to judgment or making predictions.
- Focus on caring statements and offers to help. If your loved one, however, requests privacy or discretion, respect their wishes.
- Find care for yourself. You must acknowledge your own stress and anxiety and make time for self-care as much as possible so you can maintain the energy to deliver the support that your loved one needs.
- Talk to others in the family or community and share responsibilities if that is an option.
- Seek out support groups for both your loved one living with a chronic illness and yourself. Support groups exist for many different conditions and they offer the opportunity to share experiences with those who are going through a similar life situation. Oftentimes, support groups are open to family members of the patient as well.
At the end of the day, every illness journey is unique. Chronic illnesses are typically longstanding, which means that you and your loved one needs to take matters on a day by day basis. Only your loved one will understand the true impact of their illness on their life and only you will truly realize what it means to be a caregiver. The important things are to ensure open communication and to seek out help when you feel like you need it. And if things feel too overwhelming either for you or your loved one, you should consider seeking professional support.