How can I help? Assisting people with chronic illnesses

There are times when we want to help a family member, friend or co-worker who has a long-lasting condition or disease, but we just don’t know how.

Sometimes we think we know all about specific illnesses, but there are always new things to learn. What is the proper way to help someone who lives with a chronic condition like heart disease, diabetes, depression, HIV or something else? Research is continuously being done and some things that were said in the past (such as “people with diabetes shouldn’t eat any sweets”) aren’t necessarily accurate today. Listed are some guidelines to remember when assisting those with chronic conditions.

Learn. One of the best ways to assist someone who lives with a disease is to learn more about it. Pamphlets are generally available at clinics and health care offices. The library is also a good place to get resourceful information. The internet has many sites that can help a layperson learn about specific conditions; however you use caution that you are viewing reliable websites.

Be sure to choose internet sites wisely. As a rule, health websites sponsored by federal government agencies are good sources of health information. You can reach all federal websites at Large professional organizations and well-known medical schools may also be good sources of health information.

Look at the website name; .gov identifies a government agency; .edu identifies an educational institution; .org identifies professional organizations (for example a scientific or research society, advocacy group); .com identifies a commercial website (example: Business, pharmaceutical company, sometimes a hospital).

An excellent source of reliable online information is the National Institutes of Health at You can start here to find information on almost every health topic, including managing heart and/or lung disease, dealing with diabetes or caring for a loved one with Alzheimer's disease.

In addition, you can visit the National Library of Medicine's Medline Plus for dependable information on more than 700 health related topics. A website with health information designed specifically for elders is

Don’t forget the Michigan State University Extension website, where hundreds of Extension experts present information on a wide variety of topics.

Ask! Talk to your friend or family member. What are difficult things for this person to do? What would they prefer doing for themself? What limitations do they feel are present? And lastly, what specifically does the person feel you can you do to help them feel better physically and/or emotionally?

Make an offer. Think of specific ways you can assist that fit your lifestyle. Maybe they need a walking partner or someone to talk with while having coffee or doing crafts. Can you provide a ride to the grocery store? How about accompanying the person to a health care visit? Shopping at thrift stores or rummage sales? If you live with the person are there ways you can better manage menu planning or cooking? Can you agree to eat healthier? Are there tasks or chores that you can trade-off on?

Check back. After you’ve been offering assistance for a short period of time check back with the person to see how they feel it is going. Does your assistance satisfy a need or is there something else that has presented itself? Is the task you are partnering on working well for both of you? If not, what can change?

For more information regarding chronic illnesses, caregiving or other issues of interest to families, contact a MSU Extension educator in your area or call toll-free 1-888-MSUE-4-MI (1-888-678-3464).

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