When someone you care about is dealing with a serious health event or a life-threatening illness, it can be very difficult to know what to do or say. Your loved one is most likely experiencing some difficult emotions that can leave you not knowing how to show your support.

The sad truth is that oftentimes, a person’s circle of friends dramatically shrinks once they are diagnosed with a terminal or chronic health condition. If anything, this is the time in the person’s life where they need the most attention and support from you and others as they start to adjust to their new way of living.

Tips for Supporting a Loved One Who is Experiencing a Life-Altering Health Condition:

  1. Offer your help and support. Your loved one or friend may not want to ask for help, but it is support from individuals such as you that can make the biggest difference in their recovery. Offer to help with specific tasks or chores, even if it is just to sit with them after a doctor’s visit. Sometimes, the best support is just being there.
  2. Listen. It is totally normal for you to feel awkward and not know how to react. But, listening is most important. Just letting them process and express what they are going through without telling them how to feel, judging them, or sugar coating everything is helpful.
  3. Learn as much as you can about the illness, but keep your advice to yourself unless you are asked. The more you educate yourself about their diagnosis and treatment process, the better prepared you will be on how to best help them. Sometimes, you may not agree with them, but their treatment decisions are ultimately up to them.
  4. Stay in touch. Sometimes, a serious illness involves lengthy treatment, so just being there at the beginning for the initial diagnosis isn’t enough if you want to see them through the tough times.
  5. Ask your loved one what they want. Everyone reacts differently and has their own preferences on how they want to live the rest of their life. Show your sensitivity and put your wishes aside. Ask them if they need help with their finances, legal assistance, or completing health related paperwork. If they want to stay home, help them find homecare assistance.
  6. Share fond memories. Look at old photo albums, take them to see their childhood neighborhood, if possible. Ask them to share family recipes. Create a legacy video or lifetime journal so you can preserve their stories for future generations. When they are telling you life stories, give them your undivided attention.

Do’s and Don’t on Talking to Someone with a Serious Illness

Do’s

  • Let your loved one or friend know you are there to listen whenever they need to talk.
  • Admit feeling awkward. Honesty is always the best approach rather than trying to pretend everything is okay.
  • If you are at a loss for words, hugs work great.
  • If you can’t visit face-to-face, do call, text, video chat, email, ect., to let them know you are thinking of them.
  • Try to keep your relationship the way it always has been. Don’t stop using your sense of humor.

Don’ts:

  • Don’t say “I know how you feel” or compare some situation of yours to theirs. Everyone has their own unique story.
  • Don’t say “You’ll be okay, or everything is going to be alright”. It will only make it more difficult for them to turn to you. Sometimes, the truth is that everything is not going to be okay.
  • Don’t say “Look on the bright side” or “Keep a positive attitude”. Rather than trying to pressure them into acting a particular way, make it clear that they can honestly express the way they really feel.
  • Don’t assume they want to be excluded from social events or family get-togethers. Reach out and double check. It is your effort to include them that means the most.

5 Meaningful Actions When Caring for Someone with a Serious Illness

  1. Expect change: Supporting someone with a chronic or serious illness is a demanding role and if you have never done it, understanding the responsibility is difficult. There is a great deal of “on-the-job” training. It is extremely hard to anticipate what the needs are of your older loved-one or friend, but keeping your eyes open for changes will help you to know when and how to adjust the care and support you are providing. It is best to prepare yourself for changes, rather than always being surprised.
  2. Build your support team: Check out all of the community and government resources available. Supporting an older person with a serious illness is not limited to family members and close friends. You need to put together a care team with supportive allies. If family members do not live nearby or the person doesn’t have any family, build a family of neighbors, friends, and healthcare professionals who can help support, care for, and use their personal experiences.
  3. Create a safe living environment: The person may become a bit forgetful while undergoing treatment and/or from medication side effects. Making sure all food products are safe, that the burners on the stove are off, and that they are taking the correct medication and dosage are all imperative actions to take when helping.
  4. Do some homework: Doing some research will help you make informed decisions on the options and issues you are handling with your loved one. It is good to ask many questions, get second opinions, and turn to other organizations and experts who can offer support and additional information. Don’t be afraid to visit social media sites and other settings to see what other people in similar situations experience, how they cope with the overall task, and how to overcome specific challenges.
  5. Consider caregiving assistance for you and your loved one. If you are not able to get enough support through personal networks, family, or friends, arranging for some home health assistance can be an excellent solution. Specialized assistance can include bathing, transferring, toileting, light housework, tube feedings, companionship, and transportation.

Tips on How to Advocate for your Loved One Suffering from a Serious Illness

Being a healthcare advocate means that you’re looking out for your loved one’s best interest. You will learn as you go through the process, so don’t feel as if you need to know everything at the start. First off, ask them if they want or will allow you to help. Let them know you are trying to make things easier for them, and that you’re not trying to take over their life or boss them around. They will still be taking the lead with the doctor, but you can be there in case they might have trouble hearing. You can take notes, ask important additional questions, and if they want you to…take the lead.

  1. Prepare ahead of time for appointments. In the weeks or days prior to the appointment, start taking notes. Ask your loved one how they are feeling, if anything is worrying or bothering them. Talk to them in a relaxed environment where they can process their feelings rather than being put on the spot at the doctor’s office. Spreading the questions over a few weeks can help you get more information at different times of the day and as they remember things. Write down any new symptoms, problems, questions or concerns so you have the details about important issues to talk to the doctor about during the appointment.
  2. Take notes. It is very difficult to remember everything the doctor says after even a short period of time. Re-reading your notes will help you and your loved one understand the reasons behind the decisions the doctor has made. Writing things down will help you to review and better understand what the doctor said.
  3. Make sure everyone involved is on the same page. As the doctor is explaining things or answering your questions, make sure you and your loved one understand what the doctor said. Part of every doctor’s job is making sure you understand and can follow their protocols. Ask as many questions as you have, even if you feel embarrassed, until you and your loved one are completely clear on all of the information. If you don’t ask questions the doctor will be under the impression that you fully understand everything they said.
  4. Ask for a full medication review every six months to make sure all medications are being taken at the right dose, time, and in the right combinations. Make sure each medication is still necessary. Bring all medication bottles with you to the doctor, including supplements and vitamins. That way the doctor can see the exact names, times, dosages, and any other doctor’s who are prescribing medications for your loved one.
  5. Talk about concerns over the cost of treatment. Surprisingly some doctors can help with sample medications and medical costs. They may lower their fee or look into equally effective, but less expensive medications. They can’t help if you don’t ask.
  6. Understand side effects and treatment options. Many older adults are tending to more than one health issue. Clearly and fully understanding their health condition, concerns, medication side effects, and treatment options, keeps them in better health overall. Questions to ask:
  • What are any possible side effects?
  • How will this benefit my loved one?
  • Will this affect their ability to function on their own?
  • What are the consequences if we decide not to do this?

Seniors with a Serious Illness May Need Help Talking with Doctors

Deciding how to get the best healthcare possible for a loved one suffering from a serious illness can be overwhelming. For many in this situation, an appointment at the doctor’s office can be confusing and anxiety provoking. Advocating for your loved one can help them to keep track of the details, improve their overall health and wellness, help you to make sure they have coordinated care with specialists and insurance providers, and help them to talk to their doctor about sensitive issues.

Tips on How to Advocate for your Loved One Suffering from a Serious Illness

Being a healthcare advocate means that you’re looking out for your loved one’s best interest. You will learn as you go through the process, so don’t feel as if you need to know everything at the start. First off, ask them if they want or will allow you to help. Let them know you are trying to make things easier for them, and that you’re not trying to take over their life or boss them around. They will still be taking the lead with the doctor, but you can be there in case they might have trouble hearing. You can take notes, ask important additional questions, and if they want you to…take the lead.

  1. Prepare ahead of time for appointments. In the weeks or days prior to the appointment, start taking notes. Ask your loved one how they are feeling, if anything is worrying or bothering them. Talk to them in a relaxed environment where they can process their feelings rather than being put on the spot at the doctor’s office. Spreading the questions over a few weeks can help you get more information at different times of the day and as they remember things. Write down any new symptoms, problems, questions or concerns so you have the details about important issues to talk to the doctor about during the appointment.
  2. Take notes. It is very difficult to remember everything the doctor says after even a short period of time. Re-reading your notes will help you and your loved one understand the reasons behind the decisions the doctor has made. Writing things down will help you to review and better understand what the doctor said.
  3. Make sure everyone involved is on the same page. As the doctor is explaining things or answering your questions, make sure you and your loved one understand what the doctor said. Part of every doctor’s job is making sure you understand and can follow their protocols. Ask as many questions as you have, even if you feel embarrassed, until you and your loved one are completely clear on all of the information. If you don’t ask questions the doctor will be under the impression that you fully understand everything they said.
  4. Understand side effects and treatment options. Many older adults are tending to more than one health issue. Clearly and fully understanding their health condition, concerns, medication side effects, and treatment options, keeps them in better health overall. Questions to ask:
  1. What are any possible side effects?
  2. How will this benefit my loved one?
  3. Will this affect their ability to function on their own?
  4. What are the consequences if we decide not to do this?

5. Ask for a full medication review every six months to make sure all medications are being taken at the right dose, time, and in the right combinations. Make sure each medication is still necessary. Bring all medication bottles with you to the doctor, including supplements and vitamins. That way the doctor can see the exact names, times, dosages, and any other doctor’s who are prescribing medications for your loved one.

6. Talk about concerns over the cost of treatment. Surprisingly some doctors can help with sample medications and medical costs. They may lower their fee or look into equally effective, but less expensive medications. They can’t help if you don’t ask.

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