How to Support a Friend Who Has a Chronic Illness


Chronic illness can be isolating and lonely. People with chronic illnesses not only have more daily challenges than their healthy peers, their illnesses can set up a barrier against the types of friendship that could mitigate their isolation and loneliness.

Do you have a friend with a chronic illness? If so, how can you be the type of friend who is supportive, without sending a signal to your friend that she or he is your pet "project?" Below are a few thoughts:

Day to day relationships

  • Know when they need you (and when they don't): Learn to understand when your friend needs company or when she needs to be alone to regroup. Personality plays into this need, of course, but most people with chronic illness need to have the opportunity for alone time, as well as togetherness time. The challenge for a friend is to know when to push and when to back off. As with any caregiving role, you won't always hit the right note, but with time and sensitivity you'll likely do reasonably well.
  • Don't be offended when they don't want to spend time with you: Don't act hurt or impatient if your friend turns down your invitations to go out to shop or party. You aren't being shunned. Chronic illness takes management and self-care. Part of that self-care is saying no even to the best of friends.
  • Don't make them play host: When you visit, bring snacks so that your friend doesn't feel compelled to play host.
  • Know when to leave: Sometimes a short visit is welcome but a long visit is wearing. Other times a long, close visit is welcome.
  • Ask your friend what he or she needs: If you keep communication open and don't act hurt or rejected when your friend turns down an invitation, your friend should be willing to be honest about his or her needs.
  • Learn when their pain or depression will likely be the worst: Is an afternoon visit more welcomed by someone who has physical pain and needs time to get ready in the morning and time to wind down at night? Is an evening visit better for your friend who has major depression?
  • Don't let your friend's disease define who he or she is: If your friend has diabetes, she is still a person. She's a person who happens to have diabetes. If your friend has bipolar disorder then he is a person with bipolar issues that need tending to, but he is still a person with a unique personality and talents that reach far beyond his disease. Recognize the disease. Allow for special needs attached to the disease. But treat you friend as a whole person.
  • Allow your friend to help you, too: Few of us want to feel that we are so needy that all we do is take. Make an effort to know when your friend is best able to do something to assist you and then ask for help. Obviously, you wouldn't ask your friend with rheumatoid arthritis to help you move but you could ask him to do some phone work for you. You wouldn't ask your friend with an anxiety disorder to run your next charity event, but you can ask her if she could list people that she knows who could be donors to your cause or help with your email campaign.

During an emergency

  • Be their advocate: If your friend needs emergency attention, or is in a hospital situation and there is no one to be the advocate, then that is your role. Be the buffer who keeps too much activity at bay. Be the gofer who makes sure that the pitcher of water still contains ice or that a personal item is within reach. Be the person who fetches the nurse when pain seems to be getting out of control or when an adjustment that you can't help with needs to be made.
  • Help them manage their affairs: Help keep tabs on decision making and paper work if you are in a legal position to do so. If you aren't legally able to do this, contact the person who your friend has designated. Be a go-between until the designated person is available.
  • Just be there for them: Be the person that your friend can count on when the going gets rough. That often means just being present. You can sit and read or use your smart phone while your friend sleeps. Your presence will still be appreciated.

Be careful not to make your friend's illness the focus of your friendship. Yes, your friend has additional challenges in life, but the disease and your friend are not one. You are friends because of what you have in common. Highlight the similarities, not the differences. Be understanding and willing to go the extra mile when needed, but don't forget that your friend is first and foremost a person whom you enjoy—perhaps even love.

It bears repeating that chronic illness is just one aspect of your friendship. Compassion is important but so is respect. By keeping chronic illness in the proper perspective, the friendship can be meaningful to you both.

Carol Bradley Bursack

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Over the span of two decades, author, columnist, consultant and speaker Carol Bradley Bursack cared for a neighbor and six elderly family members. Her experiences inspired her to pen, "Minding Our Elders: Caregivers Share Their Personal Stories," a portable support group book for caregivers.

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Back when I had a serious illness [cancer] and wasn't able to go out shopping or visiting with friends, my friends pretty much disappeared. I know I probably was sounding like a pity party whenever they did call, but that was pretty much my world at the time. I was scared. I was terrified. I needed a shoulder to cry on. I needed someone to listen to me.

For me what I found that worked best was someone saying "that's terrible, it must really suck to be where you are" which helped to open up the dialog.... instead of someone sounding sing songy saying everything is going to be fine :P