How to support a loved one with a chronic illness

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Learning that a loved one has a chronic illness can be heartbreaking. You may feel helpless as you watch your friend or family member struggle, unsure how to show support. What’s worse, your loved one may reject your help or become agitated with you for trying. So what can you do when all your efforts to brighten their day don’t work?

Whether you’ve officially become your loved one’s caregiver or are just a friend who wants to help, there are proven ways you can provide emotional and physical support to someone with a chronic health condition. There are also behaviors that are counterproductive and can cause more harm than good. Here’s what to do (and what not to do) to truly brighten their day. 

Three emotional support steps 

1. Master the art of listening

People with chronic illnesses often just want to be heard, so here’s how you can listen more effectively:

Listen more than you talk: If your loved one had a rough day, let her vent. Feel free to speak up if you feel like you have something meaningful to add, but always prioritize listening over talking. 

Actively listen: Think of listening as an activity you consciously participate in. Ignore any thoughts that pop into your mind, and give your complete attention to the speaker — you may be amazed at how this perks your friend or loved one up. 

Share silence with them: Sometimes, words of comfort aren’t the answer. So share some silence with them, even if that means just sitting quietly together. Your presence can often be more comforting than anything you could ever say. 

2. Learn how to speak empathetically 

If you read our Meditation for Caregivers article, you may remember a helpful practice called noting. In this technique, you name your emotions, which helps loosen their grip on your mind and body. In psychology, this practice is called labeling, and it can be used to show empathy for care recipients and provide them emotional relief. 

Empathetic speaking works a lot like noting, except instead of naming your emotions quietly to yourself, you’re verbally acknowledging those of someone else. To do this, listen actively to your loved one, then repeat back the emotion and the physical problem she mentions. Here are two examples of what this can look like in practice: 

  • If she complains about pain in her joints from over-exercising, you can say, “It sounds like your exercise routine really caused you some grief” 
  • If she expresses irritation because she didn’t have energy to complete her to-do list, you could say, “Not completing your to-do lists seems like it was really frustrating” 

Speaking empathetically shows you understand their experience; you may be surprised to see how it lightens their mood. 

3. Celebrate their wins

If you’ve read any personal development books, you may have heard about the idea of celebrating successes. While the technique is great for self-improvement, it can work wonders for the mental health of those with chronic conditions, where every day can feel like a battle. 

Licensed Therapist Davina Tiwari, who specializes in caregiving and chronic illness, suggests, “Celebrate their small wins and successes. At a time when they may be receiving bad news on a regular basis, highlighting any and all achievements are important for boosting their sense of self and their mood.”

Three practical ways to offer support

1. Apply the healing power of touch

Human beings are meant to experience touch. The act can ease depression, reduce stress hormones, and release the “feel good” hormone, oxytocin

When it comes to caregiving, touch can also play a major role in brightening your friend or loved one’s day. Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist and Registered Caregiver Kirby Maus notes, "Little things make a big difference...holding their hand, a hug, taking them for a walk in their wheelchair, and looking into their eyes while telling them why and how much you love them."

2. Show up as a friend or family member — not just a caregiver

While helping out with household chores, errands, or getting organized are good ideas, also do things you did together before their illness. Cook together, exercise together, and just have fun together.

Tiwari suggests, “Try to give them a fun distraction that gives them momentary relief from thinking about their illness. It's important for them to know that they are not just defined by their illness but rather that they have hobbies, interests, and desires that reflect who they are as a unique individual that is completely separate from their disease.” 

3. Let technology be your Hero

Life can be complex and overwhelming for those with a chronic disease. While physically helping out can make a big difference, offering technological tools can also help simplify their lives. 

If your loved one has a complex medication regimen, for instance, Hero may be the perfect solution. Our medication management service helps take the hassle out of taking pills and can even help cut down on medication mistakes by improving your overall medication adherence. Included in the service is a smart device that organizes and dispenses up to a 90-day supply of 10 different pills, an app that tracks adherence and sends dosage and refill reminders, refill & delivery, and 24/7 human support if you ever have questions or feedback. With medication no longer a daily burden, Hero can reduce your loved one’s stress and allow her to get some time away from the complexities of medication management.  

What NOT to do: common behaviors that can cause harm

When providing chronic care for someone, what you don’t do is just as important as what you do. Eileen Davidson is a chronic pain patient who identifies some common practices to avoid:

Toxic positivity: While you may have never heard the term “toxic positivity,” you’ve probably experienced it. Toxic positivity occurs when people offer comfort using common phrases like “Everything happens for a reason,” “Don’t worry, just be positive,” or “It is what it is.” While these sayings are well-intentioned, they may alienate the speaker. So remember, silence can offer more comfort than words. Your presence can be enough. 

Unsolicited advice: Just because people vent their problems doesn’t necessarily mean they want advice. Sometimes they just want to be heard. So, remember, if your care recipient shares her struggles with you, listen more than you talk. If she wants advice, she will likely ask for it. 

Ableism: While most people wouldn't think they discriminate against disabled people, harmful ableist language is quite common in society. Ableism refers to the discrimination of disabled or chronically ill people in favor of those with normal abilities. For those with chronic illnesses, this happens when their disease isn’t validated. Comments like, “Everyone gets exhausted,” “You’re sickness is a mindset issue,” or “Just push through the pain” can cause emotional distress, failing to acknowledge the illness or seeing it as a deficiency to be corrected.

Make a real difference in their life

Brightening the day of someone with a chronic illness is a balancing act. You want to be positive but not devalue their illness. You want to help them but not act like they’re helpless. This is why listening is so important: it shows acceptance, validation, and understanding, and it can make a real difference.

As a company that serves many people with chronic illness, we know from experience how practical support can also brighten their day. Hero has helped thousands of people relieve the burden of managing their meds. Our full-service loop simplifies your medication management by replacing the tiresome process of hand-sorting pills with a smart device that does it for you and alleviates the stress of constantly needing to remember when it’s time for a dose. If you’re caring for someone with a chronic disease, we’re sure it can help them replace tedious tasks from their day with more laughter, lightness, and joy. 

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The contents of the above article are for informational and educational purposes only. The article is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified clinician with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition or its treatment and do not disregard professional medical advice or delay seeking it because of information published by us.

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