How can I help? Assisting people with chronic illnesses

There are ways to help family members, loved ones and friends who are managing chronic illnesses and diseases.

A person resting their head on another's shoulders.
Photo: Unsplash.

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

We may think we know all about specific illnesses, but there are always new things to learn. What is the proper way to help someone with chronic conditions 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 their disease or condition. Informational pamphlets are generally available at clinics and health care offices. The library is also a good place to get resourceful information. Laypeople can also look online to learn about specific conditions; however, use caution to make sure you are viewing reliable websites.

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

Look at the website name. Web addresses ending in .gov identifies a government agency; .edu identifies an educational institution; .org identifies professional organizations (such as a scientific or research society, advocacy group); .com identifies a commercial website (such as business, pharmaceutical company or 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 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 reliable information on more than 700 health-related topics. Another good website with health information designed specifically for older adults is

Add a bookmark for the Michigan State University Extension website, where hundreds of articles can be found on a wide variety of health topics.

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

Check back. After you’ve been helping for a short 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?

If you’re looking for additional caregiving support, Michigan State University Extension offers Powerful Tools for Caregivers workshops online and throughout Michigan. This workshop helps caregivers take care of themselves by introducing them to a range of self-care tools to help reduce personal stress and communicate effectively with family members and healthcare providers. You may also want to reach out to your county commission on aging or the regional Area Agency on Aging to locate community resources to support your caregiving efforts.

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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