|Helping others with chronic diseases and why it matters|
In a previous article, Dr. Martha Leatherman and I wrote about helping people who have terminal illnesses. Love, care, and support for those at the end of life can be a powerful witness to Jesus Christ. It can be a powerful witness against assisted suicide and euthanasia. Equally important is love, care, and support for those with chronic illnesses. Chronic illnesses include asthma, Crohn's disease, fibromyalgia, muscular dystrophy, and many others. These are long-lasting and ever present in the person who has them. Living with these conditions can lead to depression and hopelessness. The musician Kurt Cobain took his own life. It was reported that he had Crohn's disease, and was tired of living with it. We can only speculate if things would have been different if he had a Christian friend who cared for him.
As doctor assisted suicide for those with terminal illnesses becomes more common, it may lead to the doctor assisted suicide for those with chronic illnesses who may otherwise have many productive years left. The pro-life movement is a prophetic witness against doctor assisted suicide. Pro-life people can be active agents of Christ's love in the lives of their loved ones who have a chronic illness.
Here are some ways in which you can help:
1. Stay in touch. Some chronic illnesses keep people at home. Visits, telephone calls, notes, and emails all help to alleviate isolation. If you make a phone call, ask if the person is feeling well enough to talk. Keep visits to a reasonable length. Take your cues from the person's energy and comfort levels. A few minutes may be sufficient. Don't take it personally if your visit is short. Often it has been much later that I have heard that a visit I made to someone had been appreciated.
2. Call before you visit. Ask if a visit would be convenient, or what day and time would be good for a visit. Ask if you can bring anything such as groceries, books, magazines, postage stamps, etc. Don't bring food unless you know what the person can eat. Some chronic diseases affect the digestive system.
3. Be aware of your own health, and don't visit if you have been exposed to a cold or infection. Many people with chronic diseases take medications that suppress the immune system. One cancer survivor I know even kept a hand sanitizer by her front door for her guests to use when they came to visit.
4. Listen carefully and give your full attention to the person you are visiting with. This can be hard work, and takes concentration. I often have to remind myself when I am visiting with someone to not let my mind wander, but to bring my attention back to the person I am with. Take your cues from the person about what he or she may want to talk about.
5. Use caring words. This does take practice and intentionality. For a person with a chronic illness it can be frustrating to be asked week after week "How are you?" all the while knowing there is no improvement or that one is even getting worse.
6. Avoid cheap reassurance. Don't be frightened if the person is anxious or feels hopeless. Avoid saying things like "You'll feel better soon." The person may never feel better. Avoid saying things like "Don't worry, you'll be fine" especially early after a diagnosis is made. Your loved one may be facing years and even decades of not being fine. Cheap reassurance is worse than saying nothing. It can evoke anger and depression.
7. It is okay to lament with and for your friend. Sometimes a proper response is "This just stinks." "Lord, I don't like this." The psalms are full of lament to the Lord, but we North American Christians often think we will appear weak if we give voice to our dissatisfaction. In the face of illness and death, we are all weak.
8. Witness to your faith in the Savior, but don't promise what you cannot guarantee. Don't panic if the person expresses loss of faith or disappointment with God. God is faithful, even when we are not.
9. Before leaving ask what you can do, and be specific. "Let me know if there is anything I can do for you" is too vague and often leaves the person at a loss. Specific suggestions will often be accepted. "Are there errands I can run?" "Do you need a ride to the doctor or pharmacy?" Could I help next week with housework or yard work?" "Do you have mail I can drop off at the post office for you?" "Could I cook or bake something for you?" Many people won't ask for help but will accept specific assistance if it is offered.
10. Pray for them daily. Pray that they may grow in faith, courage, strength, and hope. Pray that their suffering may be relieved. Pray that God bless those who search for cures and better treatments. Pray that medical caregivers will be blessed with patience, compassion, and competence. Let the ill people know that you are praying for them.
11. Don't forget those with chronic illnesses. Chronic illnesses usually last for years and even decades. Those afflicted often receive all kinds of attention during the first months or year after they are diagnosed, but then are gradually forgotten. Be faithful. Your caring is an expression of Christ's love and care. Love and care are important to a chronically ill person.