Living with a chronic illness, such as cancer, heart disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), diabetes or an immune disorder, can be isolating and lonely. Chronically ill individuals not only face more daily challenges than their healthy peers, but their condition can also interfere with their ability to socialize and partake in activities they enjoy.

If you have a friend with a chronic illness, it’s important to be a source of support for them. However, it can be difficult to do this without coming off as if your friend is your “pet project.” Below are a few thoughts on how to be a good friend to someone who is facing a serious illness without being patronizing.

Tips for Supporting a Friend with a Chronic Illness

  • Know when they need you (and when they don’t). Learn to understand when your friend needs company and when they need to be alone to regroup. Individual personality traits play into this balance, of course, but most people who are chronically ill need the ability to choose between alone time and social time. The challenge is reading these cues and knowing when to push to be there for them and when to give them space. You won’t always be able to identify exactly what your friend needs, and that’s okay. Clear communication can help immensely, but a good rule of thumb is to always check in from time to time and convey your willingness to be there for them in person or via phone, text or email.
  • 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 shopping or to get dinner and drinks. Chances are you aren’t being shunned. Living with a chronic illness takes management and self-care. Part of that self-care is saying no sometimes, even to the best of friends. Only they can fully understand how they’re feeling physically and emotionally and how certain plans will impact their wellbeing. Continue reaching out and extending invites, but don’t take it personally if they don’t accept.
  • Don’t make them play host. Sometimes the best way to connect with a friend, especially one who is ill, is to go to them. However, be sure to keep your visits casual and minimize pressure on them to entertain. For example, make a snack or offer to pick up a meal for both of you on the way over so that they don’t feel compelled to cook. Some people are comfortable just talking over a cup of coffee or you can bring over cards, a board game, craft supplies or a movie. It doesn’t matter what you two do; just showing up to spend time together with zero expectations is a thoughtful gesture.
  • Know when to leave. Sometimes a short visit is welcome, but a long visit can be wearing. Other times a long, intimate visit is ideal. Be mindful of the time and cues your friend is sending to determine the best time to make your exit. Even if your friend doesn’t have much else planned for the rest of the day, socializing can get tiring.
  • Ask your friend what they need. Whether you’re talking about your own health or that of a friend, communicating about one’s chronic illness and related needs can be tricky. Open, honest conversations about these topics are important for both of you. If they don’t seem to be forthcoming about their needs, it may be because they don’t want to burden you, or they don’t know what would actually be helpful. Instead, make offers to assist with daily tasks that everyone must accomplish. If you’re passing the drug store, call them and ask if you can pick up any medications for them. If they’re having difficulty finding the energy to keep up with their housework, offer to come over and knock out a couple chores together. Filling a need doesn’t necessarily need to be an act of service. Sometimes just taking a short walk outside together can fill important physical, emotional and social needs. On the other hand, keep in mind that solitude can sometimes be a need that is difficult to communicate politely.
  • Consider symptoms like pain, depression and fatigue. Chronic illness can affect a person’s life in various physical and emotional ways, and each person has their own method of coping with these effects. Try to keep these factors in mind when planning visits, phone calls or outings together. For example, an afternoon visit may be better for someone who has physical pain and needs ample time to get ready in the morning and settle in at night. Or an evening phone call may be the perfect pick-me-up for a friend who has major depression and feels more down later on in the day.
  • Don’t let your friend’s disease define who they are. If your friend has bipolar disorder, they are still a person. They just happen to be a person who has a mental illness. They have a unique personality and talents that reach far beyond their disease. Recognize and accommodate their condition, but always treat your 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 from others. Quality relationships involve a balance of give and take between two people. As your friend, they should want to support you, too, but you must give them the opportunity. Make an effort to know when your friend is best able to do something to assist you and then ask for help. Don’t forget to be realistic about your requests, though. Obviously, you wouldn’t ask your friend with rheumatoid arthritis to help you move, but you could ask them to help you decorate your new place once everything is unpacked. This person has traits and abilities that you appreciate and respect—that’s why you are friends. So, let them use these attributes to support you in return.

Offering Support During an Emergency

  • Be their advocate. If your friend needs emergency medical care or is hospitalized and they do not have a family member there to advocate for them, then offer to step into that role. Be the buffer who keeps the incessant activity at bay. Make sure that their water glass is always full or that they have personal items or creature comforts within reach. Call the nurse if they need assistance or have a question.
  • Help them manage their affairs. Help keep tabs on decision making and paperwork if you are in a legal position to do so. HIPAA authorization or a medical power of attorney designation is required for you to be involved in their care. (HIPAA only allows you to receive information about their condition, care and insurance, but medical POA actually enables you to make decisions on your friend’s behalf.) If you aren’t legally able to assist with these tasks, contact the person who your friend has designated. Be a go-between until the designated person is available to take over this role.
  • 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. Even if your friend is sleeping much of the time, continue to visit with them. You can sit and read or use your smart phone while they rest. Your presence will still be appreciated.

Be careful not to make your friend’s illness the focus of your relationship. Yes, they have additional challenges in life, but the disease and your friend are not one. You care about each other and cherish what this friendship adds to each of your lives. 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 factor in your entire friendship. Compassion is important but so is respect. By keeping chronic illness in the proper perspective, this friendship can be rewarding for and meaningful to both of you.

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