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Chronic illnesses affect nearly half of Americans, making the occurrence very common.
Those with chronic illness may have trouble asking for support or help from others, but it’s been shown that social support can significantly benefit those with chronic conditions.
There are many ways you can support a loved one with chronic illness, including being empathetic, not engaging in toxic positivity, and listening to them.
What is a Chronic Illness?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention define chronic illness as “conditions that last 1 year or more and require ongoing medical attention or limit activities of daily living or both.” Some examples of chronic illnesses include cancer, heart disease, and diabetes.
Chronic illness can happen to those of any age, but older adults may experience a higher risk of certain chronic illnesses.
Why is Coping With Chronic Illness Difficult?
When a loved one is diagnosed with a chronic illness, it can be an overwhelming experience. Feelings of helplessness and desperation can become more prevalent and difficult to navigate. Chronic disease can be challenging to cope with for a variety of reasons, including:
Limited mobility/physical activity: Some chronic illnesses may limit a person’s ability to move around or be as physically active as they once were.
Needing help with care: Many people are used to doing basic tasks, such as cooking, cleaning, and caring for their hygiene, without assistance from others. Some chronic illnesses may mean a person requires help, which can lead to feelings of frustration or embarrassment for some.
Feeling helpless: Chronic illness can be debilitating, especially when a person is unsure how long they will have to deal with the disease. Not knowing how long a person will have to continue living with the chronic condition can make them feel helpless and negatively impact their mental health.
Why Support is Important for Someone With a Chronic Illness
While being treated by medical professionals is helpful and necessary for those with chronic illnesses, it’s been shown that social support, particularly from a friend or family member, can help alleviate stress levels and decrease depression levels, especially with support for long periods of time. Knowing that there is support available can make a significant impact on someone with a chronic illness and can have benefits such as:
Better health/fewer health problems due to lower amounts of stress
Feeling encouraged, which can serve as motivation as they navigate the condition
Better mental health, such as lower likelihood of loneliness and depression
Ways to Offer Support to Someone With a Chronic Illness
While offering support is important, it can be difficult to determine what is helpful or what actions are beneficial for those with chronic conditions. If you want to support a loved one with a chronic illness, there are a few tips that are worth remembering.
#1: Don’t Engage in Toxic Positivity
When faced with bad news or seeing loved ones go through tough times, it’s tempting to try to frame things through an optimistic lens. However, this can potentially lead to more harm than good and can lead to toxic positivity—which means fixating/demanding only happy/positive expressions when dealing with unfavorable circumstances. Some examples of toxic positive phrases that may be said surrounding chronic illness include:
“Well, it could be worse!”
“Look on the bright side!”
“Don’t be so down; there is still so much to be happy about!”
“Everything happens for a reason.”
“Happiness is a choice.”
Toxic positivity is different from optimism, in that optimism tries to look at a situation’s positive viewpoint but does not require forced happiness. Optimism can be encouraging, but it’s not meant to be used to ignore or invalidate a person’s feelings or experiences.
When someone with a chronic illness expresses feelings of sadness, anger, embarrassment, or helplessness, responding with “It could be worse!” (or others like it) can make the person feel as though they aren’t allowed to have any negative feelings regarding their situation, which can make them feel shame or guilt over having them in the first place. Instead, some helpful phrases to respond with could be:
“I’m sorry, that sounds difficult to deal with.”
“I can’t imagine how this feels, but I’m here for you.”
“Your feelings are valid.”
“That sounds frustrating—how can I help?”
“I want to support you however I can.”
#2: Don’t Give Unsolicited Advice
In attempts to help, sometimes people feel the need to share advice to provide some sort of help or aid to a person with a chronic illness. If a loved one tells you about their illness, including specific issues or inconvenient aspects of the condition, you may lean into administering advice, even if it wasn’t asked for. While this can be done with good intentions, it isn’t often beneficial. Some main reasons you should avoid giving unsolicited advice include:
The person may want to vent, especially if they’ve had a rough day and aren’t looking for advice.
It can come across as critical rather than suggestive, making the person feel guilty for not implementing the advice.
You may not be fully educated on their condition, nor know all the facts surrounding their experience, and end up providing unhelpful information.
Rather than giving unwarranted advice, you can alternatively respond in a few ways:
Listen to what they are saying without offering opinions.
If you feel strongly you have something to share, ask first if they are open to hearing suggestions.
Be present and engaged with them without focusing on your version of the situation.
#3: Listen to What They Need
While it may seem obvious to say listen to what a person needs, it can be one of the most important and beneficial things you can do for your loved one during these times. While you may have opinions on what is best for them, ultimately, they are living with the condition, and their perspective matters regarding their care.
Most notably, it’s important to actively listen to the person when they are sharing things with you about their chronic illness. Often, a person will feel more open to sharing what they need with people they know can be trusted and who make them feel validated, allowing you to support them better moving forward.
#4: Ask Them What They Want or Need
Listening is important, but it’s also essential to directly ask a person what they want or need. It can be difficult for people living with chronic illness to ask for help or support, including older adults, so initiating those conversations can be a huge help.
There are a few things to keep in mind when asking, including:
Don’t be discouraged if they don’t give a solid answer: Some people may struggle to have an answer or may not want to come across as a burden. Assure them it’s okay not to know and ask again another time.
Ask specific questions: Rather than asking generic “What do you need?” questions, opt for more specific ones such as “Do you need someone to go get you groceries?” or “Do you need someone to pick up your medication?” which can provide more options and help a person feel more inclined to accept your suggestions.
#5: Research the Illness to Understand Better
If you’ve never experienced a chronic disease, particularly the one your loved one is diagnosed with, it helps to become more acquainted with the condition. If you’re the caregiver, you may ask the medical professionals involved for more information on the illness. If you’re a family member or friend simply wanting to offer support, researching the condition online through reputable websites and sources can give you a better idea of what your loved one is experiencing.
It’s important to note that, even when researching a specific illness, not all people living with the chronic condition have the same effects, and what affects one person may not affect another. Only your loved one can relay their specific experiences, so listening to them is important.
#6: Avoid Ableism
Ableism, or the discrimination of disabled people in favor of non-disabled people, is something many do even if it’s not intentional. However, certain remarks and actions can be insensitive and unsupportive to those with chronic illnesses that impact their daily lives. Some examples of ableist behavior include:
Statements such as “Just push through it” or “It’s not that bad” when referring to someone’s discomfort or symptoms.
Making plans to do activities that aren’t feasibly possible for the person with the chronic illness
Assuming a person isn’t struggling because their chronic condition isn’t “visible.”
It’s important not to make assumptions and let your loved one know you value them, including being mindful of how you approach and talk about their condition with them and others.
#7: Be Empathetic
When showing support, connecting with your loved one is crucial to making them feel seen and cared for. Showing empathy can play a significant role in someone with a chronic illness feeling supported and valued.
It’s important to distinguish that empathy (when you can understand someone’s feelings, even if you’re not experiencing them directly) differs from sympathy (when you feel sad or pity someone’s suffering or misfortune). People with chronic illness likely won’t respond well to a person pitying them but will be much more open to someone trying to understand their feelings and thoughts.
Some ways you can show empathy include:
Not dismissing their experiences: If someone expresses they’re struggling with symptoms of their illness, for example, it’s important not to dismiss their experience or trump it with your own. Instead, putting yourself in their shoes can help give much-needed perspective.
Be understanding: Despite best intentions, chronic illness can, at times, unexpectedly wreak havoc on someone’s mind and body. If your loved one has to cancel plans or isn’t as upbeat or cheerful as usual, let them know it’s okay and understandable. It’s important they don’t feel they are a burden or feel unnecessary guilt for something outside of their control.
Acknowledge how they feel: Letting your loved one know you understand them and their feelings is essential, rather than assuming you already know or showing no interest in their daily life.
#8: Be their Loved One, Not Just a Caregiver
If you specifically have taken on the caregiver role, which may be common with family members or close friends in certain circumstances, it’s important that you don’t solely fixate on being their caregiver. While you may need to, at times, focus on specific areas of their health and ensure they are fully taken care of, set aside time just to be their loved one. Some ways to do this may include:
Setting aside time to talk, and not always about the chronic condition.
Uplifting and encouraging them.
Allow someone else to fill the caregiver role at times so you can focus on being their family member or friend.
When in a caregiver role, it can, at times, put a strain on your relationship with someone who has a chronic illness, especially if you feel overwhelmed, so it’s important to take time for yourself, too.
Note: If you feel you’re experiencing caregiver burnout, visit this source.
What should you not say to someone with chronic conditions?
Toxic positivity phrases such as "Other people have had it worse!" or dismissive phrases such as "Oh, it doesn't hurt that much" should be avoided when talking with those who have chronic illnesses, as they are often unhelpful or insensitive.
What is the best way to support someone with a chronic illness?
Some ways to support someone with a chronic illness include: showing compassion and empathy, not giving unsolicited advice, and providing emotional support.
What effect does chronic illness have on relationships?
While there is no one-size-fits-all answer, chronic illness can take a toll on relationships over time. Added amounts of stress, pain, and limited mobility may impact certain relationships more than others. However, with a genuine desire to support and connect, relationships can still thrive despite any chronic illness present.