If you’ve ever had a friend or loved one diagnosed with a chronic illness, then you’ve probably wondered what to do and how to help. Many of us feel helpless in this arena and sometimes end up avoiding them because of it. I asked several teens and young adults how others could help. From their responses, here’s a list of specific things you can do to show you care. Not all suggestions will be good for every person, but these ideas give you a good place to start. First and foremost, believe them – even if they don’t look sick. They’re not expecting you to cure them or solve all of their problems, but they would really appreciate your care and support!
Check in with them!
Find out what format is best for them whether text, email, phone, snapchat, skype, etc… Everyone is different. Just remember to do what works best for THEM!
Get to know them!
While some people will accept help easily, many will not, or will feel like a burden if they do. With someone you know well, you can more easily reassure them that by helping them with something, it gives you a way to show you care.
Do something (or some things) specific to help.
Always ask details first – sometimes our well-intended helpfulness can be more troublesome than the help we meant to provide. (A few ideas are listed below.)
Treat him or her the same as before.
This is a big one! While your friend or family member may not be able to do as many of the things they did before, they are still the same person. We see it said often and it needs to be taken to heart: A person is NOT their illness or disease; he/she HAS the illness/disease. BIG difference!
While it may sound contradictory, while treating your friend the “same,” do realize that they will likely not be able to hang out or be involved in activities the “same way.” I promise this is much harder for them than it is for you. DO INVITE them to go out but DON’T make them feel they are inconveniencing you if they can’t. It’s an adjustment everyone has to make. So yes, treat them as the same person, however, be understanding of their new normal.
Visits & Plans:
Please hear me on this – there will be days where your friend is up for an in-person visit – perhaps for a few hours even. They may be able to go out to do something as well. There will be other days where they don’t even have the energy to get out of bed. Think about the last time you had the flu – now times it by 100. Remember how yucky you felt and how embarrassing it would be to have company? Or, maybe you just didn’t have the strength to keep up with a simple conversation? Well, your friend is going to have these days and, for some, there are a lot of days like this. What can you do? Be aware – ask if they’re up to an in-person visit. Be prepared to cut that visit very short if need be. The same goes for PLANS – DON’T take it personally if they have to cancel. Believe me, they are much more disappointed than you and will feel deeply guilty for letting you down.
Be a NUDGE!
Well – not in a pushy way – just tell your friend it’s ok to skip exercise class today, it is ok to leave the project or chore for another day, or, if you’re working together and you notice she’s struggling, acknowledge it. Encourage her to take the afternoon off if it’s possible or do whatever you can to help. Sometimes just knowing someone “sees” us, can make all the difference and we all feel better with someone else says it’s ok to give in from time to time.
Learn about your friend’s or loved one’s diagnosis (or diagnoses).
Be educated and ask questions. It shows you want to understand and be supportive.
*On the flip side of the previous point,, please DO realize that they and their family and medical team have done plenty of research and very rarely will you be able to give them new or earth-shattering information or the “fix” for their illness. However, if you are asked to look into something, please do so. And if you have or know someone who has a similar diagnosis, it’s ok to share what helped you or them. Just remember, having Cystic Fibrosis is a far cry from the bronchitis you developed last year!
Try very hard to refrain from saying, “But you don’t look sick!”
While you may mean this as, “You look really great today,” someone with chronic illness – especially an “invisible” illness – may find that insulting. What are they supposed to look like?? Would looking visibly ill make you understand their pain, fatigue, or symptoms better? You see, many have already had to struggle with not being believed when they said they were in pain, or that something more serious was wrong – often by parents, siblings, teachers, and even doctors. Saying they don’t look sick makes them wonder if you don’t believe them too. It IS OK to say, “You look well today, but how do you feel?”
Want some specific ideas on how to help? Read on!
*Running an errand for someone can be huge! If you’re headed to the grocery, mall, pharmacy, whatever (or even if you’re not) – ask if they need something. Then ask if they’re up to a visit or prefer that you just leave their items at the door (see VISITING above!)
*Make a meal for now and a few for later if you can afford it. The most important part of doing this, though, is to ask what they like and can have. Many people have dietary restrictions and especially those with chronic illness. Not only will this be a nice gift for your friend, but could also be helpful to a caregiver.
*Household chores are very helpful, though for some, you probably should know them fairly well first. You can wash dishes and put them away, wash and fold laundry, vacuum, change bed linens, dust, mop – anything that requires extra energy would be a big help. BUT – remember to ask if it’s ok. Some will welcome any and all help, while others may be more embarrassed by it.
*When your friend is absent from school, check in with him/her right away. We all need to know that our absence is noticed. Plus, it keeps them in the loop and connected with school and friends even when they can’t be there. Also, don’t forget to offer to help – bring their books, offer to copy your notes from class, etc…
*Spend time with your friend on his/her terms – a short visit, a drive around town, a quick lunch or snack out at a park or cafe. And if there’s a wheelchair or other medical equipment involved, learn how to help with that too. Invite your friends to do things with you and other friends – and keep extending an invitation when they can’t make it. It means the world to them to be included and wanted. Plus, meeting your other friends broadens their contacts and friends’ group too.
NOTE TO WARRIORS: While it may be difficult or awkward to accept it, try to let others help! And, for all, do remember to laugh!!! Humor truly is a great medicine!
~Denise Archilla, MSW
Chronic Warrior Collective, LLC