Understanding Chronic Illness
Chronic illnesses can begin at any time in life from childhood to old age. Some of these illnesses contribute to disabilities that are clearly seen, but others create “invisible” disabilities that may not be readily apparent. Family members and others who assist those with chronic illness also experience difficult challenges.
Chronic illnesses vary in their symptoms, treatment, and course. Some may be life threatening, and as they progress, the quality of life and ability to function deteriorate. Others, although persistent, may be less disabling and respond well to treatment.
Examples of common chronic illnesses may include such varied illnesses as cerebral palsy, asthma, multiple sclerosis, epilepsy, cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and chronic fatigue syndrome.
Living with a chronic illness involves more than the physical limitations created by the illness. It may also contribute to financial, relationship, and emotional challenges as well. Individuals may experience loneliness, embarrassment, fear, and concerns about dependency. It often takes time to adjust and to accept the realities of a long-term disabling illness.
Family life may be vastly altered if the primary wage earner is unable to work or if treatment requires long-term changes in the family routine and activities. Learning how to follow medical instructions, managing medication, working out financial challenges, and adapting to limitations and changes created by the illness all require learning new skills and ways of coping.
Those who cope successfully usually have a supportive network of people who help them to maintain a sense of dignity and self-worth. They also strive to keep the Spirit with them, remain close to the Lord, and keep the commandments.
Ways to Help
- Learn about the illness and how it affects the person. This can help you understand what the person needs and what challenges and limitations he or she may be experiencing. Be sensitive to special needs in terms of hygiene, physical arrangements, or other assistance.
- Consider emotional, physical, and spiritual needs. Take time to show genuine interest. Focus on the person as a whole, not just his or her illness.
- Be aware that others who care for the person may also be affected as they react to seeing their loved one struggle.
- Help the person maintain dignity. Support realistic self-care as much as possible. Be positive and focus on what he or she can do rather than dwelling on limitations.
- Work together with priesthood and auxiliary leaders and home and visiting teachers as well as the person and his or her family to make reasonable accommodations. For example, physical limitations may require help in getting to and from meetings. To the extent feasible, help the person with a disability and the family keep the influence of the Spirit in their lives.
- Find opportunities for the person to serve and contribute within the ward family according to his or her abilities.
- Be a good listener as the person tries to accept, understand, and cope with the illness. Never imply it is because a person is “special” or a “sinner.” Prayer and faith in Christ are essential.
- If the person is hospitalized or homebound, regular visits are often appreciated.
- Consider recording lessons for members who may not be able to attend, or where appropriate, visit and share a lesson together.
- Recognize that many people with chronic illness cannot sit or concentrate for long periods. Where qualified and with permission, assist with special physical or medical needs without calling undue attention to them.
- Be aware if the person has any special medical needs that could require immediate attention. Know how to respond in case of an emergency.
- Where appropriate, write a note of love and encouragement or share a good book together.