Offering Support When People Are Managing an Illness

Erin Sesemann, Therapist, Boone, NC

Dr. Erin Sesemann, PhD, LMFT, CBIS (she/her/hers) takes a holistic approach to counseling with her specialized training in Medical Family Therapy, EMDR therapy, and certification as a Brain Injury Specialist. Her office is based in Boone, North Carolina, offering in-person and online therapy to people across North Carolina.

Do you want to offer support to a friend or family member who is managing an illness? It can be intimidating to figure out how to offer support during these times. Symptoms can be unpredictable, often coming and going without notice. Feeling connected to each other and maintaining a good quality of life during these times is usually a high priority but difficult to achieve.

Why Does Your Support Matter?

I cannot emphasize enough how much support from friends and family matters when an individual is living with an illness.

Here are a few reasons why offering support is so important:

  • It shows that you care about them and their lives
  • You taking the initiative lifts the burden off the person with the illness from having to explain or defend things that have changed
  • It emphasizes that you value them as a person (which can be essential to counteract the constant encounters with the healthcare system that often feels dehumanizing)

Also, changing up your lifestyle provides you both the opportunity to connect with each other. When the way you used to connect is no longer be available, then you can help create new opportunities. Keep reading for some ideas on how to get started.

Trying to Understand

Learning about the illness can be a powerful way to offer support. It shows that you are invested and care when you take your own initiative to seek information and understand the diagnosis. Once you have the general knowledge about the health issue, asking them about their experience of the illness could be a good way to connect.

Make sure to follow their lead on what aspects of the illness they are interested in discussing and to what depth. Some people are an open book when it comes to a diagnosis. But, other people prefer to keep personal information private. Either way, when offering support it is essential to believe them and use active listening skills.*  

*Active listening skills: open questions, affirmations, making eye contact, reflection statements

After Understanding Comes Action

Once you have a basic understanding about the health condition that is affecting your loved one, it is time to take some action.

Just learning is not enough when it comes to supporting people over time. Instead, try to creatively adjust life to better fit their mobility, endurance, level of independence, and any other symptom (e.g., overstimulation, sensitivities, allergies).

Here are a few ideas are to try to creatively offer support by increasing accessibility and independence: 

  • Modifying the environment: turn off lights, noisy household appliances, remove rugs
  • Adjusting the daily activities of living: help set up a pill box for medication management, use calendar reminders to recall appointments, install a handle in the tub or put in a shower chair, build a ramp
  • Adapting the activities you and your person do to connect, enjoy each other, and generally spend time together: sit at the park instead of walk, shorten duration of visit, listen to recordings of live music rather than going to live music shows 
two people holding hands

The Value of Advocacy

Taking action to advocate and spread general awareness* about the illness can be a meaningful way to offer support to your loved one. They may even be interested in joining you in the advocacy and awareness efforts.

Advocacy and awareness organizations can also be a good avenue to meet people who are also experiencing illness. These can be local in-person or online communities, support groups, or recreation and leisure clubs.

*Be sure to get your loved one’s permission before sharing any of their personal details about living with the illness.

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