Five Ways to Help a Loved One Adjust to Chronic Illness

Lonely man in wheelchair
Combating depression. Getty

I sat with my brother-in-law and reminded him of the enormous number of people he touched during his life. We both knew he would die in a few months.

“You’ve inspired people to go beyond what they thought they could do,” I said.

He remained silent and focused on the assortment of medicines next to his bed necessary for extending his life and a stack of absorbent underwear required because of his increasing incontinence.

“There’s much a wanted to do with my life, and I know there won’t be time,” he tearfully said.

Combatting Depression

As caregivers, we deal with the unfulfilled dreams of loved ones. Quite often these unmet aspirations lead to depression. Depression can develop from the acceptance of knowing they will be living with a long-term chronic illness or are facing a terminal prognosis—conditions that shatter possibilities.

Words, I realized, rarely are enough to make our loved ones’ lives less negative. There are other, more effective means to reduce depression. Here are four I found effective in caring for my brother-in-law and patients I served in hospice.

1. Talk About Wonderful Experiences

Giving lesser importance to illness than life is not a rejection of reality. Discuss the wonderful things in your loved one’s past—not just descriptively, but what they meant to you and other people. For my brother-in-law, I daily read and discussed the emails he received from people whose lives he impacted.

2. Remove Medical Items.

Loved ones constantly live with illness. The illness shouts its presence with every discomfort, movement, or call for assistance. For many people, it’s presence is overwhelming and grows as they become confined to smaller areas such as their room or bed. They spend most of their time in areas filled with necessary medical times: oxygen tanks, medicines, chocks, clean towels, suction device, and personal hygiene items, to mention a few.

Everything they feel and see says, “You are sick,” or “You are dying.”

Remove as many items related to the illness as possible. A common saying among vegetarians is “You are what you eat.” In caregiving, it’s transformed into “Your loved one becomes what she sees.” Removing the items may seem superficial, but the consequences can be positive.​

3. Fill the Room with Important Objects.

A caregiver told me as her husband’s chronic heart failure progressed, he was confined to his room. She lamented the spatial restrictions necessary for preserving his life were resulting in depression. I suggested filling the room with objects important to her husband, preferably ones he was passionate about prior to becoming ill. Since golf occupied most of his leisure time, she brought in his trophies, golf pictures and even his set of clubs. The change in his attitude was dramatic.

Focusing a loved one’s attention on what was positive in their life isn’t a cure for depression. Often in caregiving, the goal is to reduce negative emotions.

Golf memorabilia couldn’t replace eighteen holes with friends on a crisp summer morning, but it was better than staring at walls.

4. Maximize the Positive, Minimize the Negative

A women’s mother came to stay with her following a debilitating stroke. The guest room faced the street where construction on a new sewer line just begun. The noise was intolerable to her mother, because neurologically, the stroke made her more sensitive to noise. I suggested one of two options: either switch rooms with her mother or install soundproof glass and introduce pleasant ambient noise or music. While the second option was more expensive than the first, it suited the family’s needs and resulted in a less stressful time for her mother.

Living with a chronic illness is stressful. Although the illness may not be amenable to change, the environment can be restructured so it doesn’t add to the stress produced by the illness.

5. Focus on Minimizing Psychological Pain

We all want to provide the best care we can for our loved one. In the back of our mind is the goal of “making everything better.” Sometimes that isn’t possible. A more realistic goal is to reduce the negative aspects of chronic illness. You can’t reverse a loved one’s congestive heart failure, but you can make living with it easier. ​

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