Tending to the Sick
According to a 2014 article by the National Health Council, there are about 133 million people in the US with chronic illnesses. The article goes on to report, “About 40 million Americans are limited in their usual activities due to one or more chronic health conditions.” That is a lot of people, roughly one in nine, whose lives are disrupted by long term illness. These conditions can be cancer, arthritis, heart disease, neuropathic pain, and many other illnesses. In addition to being psychologically and physically demanding, debilitating chronic illnesses are incredibly time consuming. This is one of the reasons why chronic illness takes a terrible toll on the sick and their loved ones. Many major religions call on believers to tend to the sick and, though I think most of us would agree in principle with this mandate, I also think this is something that is often forgotten and not acted on in our society. We all get busy and there are so many stimuli begging for our attention that we forget about chronic illness and the effect these health battles have on patients and the people close to them. As a society, we don’t tend to deal well with chronic pain, long term illness, or aging. But that does not have to be the case and it does not take more than a modest individual effort to make a difference. There are plenty of options available to any of us who want to help those with chronic illnesses. As a person who has experienced chronic illness, I can tell you it is dispiriting and isolating. The smallest helpful gesture from another person can make an enormous positive difference in the quality of life and outlook for someone whose days are consumed by their illness.
With so many people suffering from chronic illness, it is imperative that, as a society, we acknowledge this as the crisis it is and that each and every one of us step up to help in whatever way we can manage.
Debilitating chronic illness can take the form of any sickness that lasts more than a couple months and impacts the work, pleasure, and general lifestyle of the sufferer. I have heard healthy people, with healthy friends and relatives (people who have no experience with chronic illness) occasionally suggest that the situation is not so bad because we live in a modern society with technological treatments for disease and readily available, high-quality medical care. I can understand how someone who has no experience with chronic illness might think this way, but the fact is that advanced technological medical care is not enough to comfort the chronically ill or to ease the impact on our society.
Based on personal experience I can report that being continuously sick takes up enormous amounts of time and energy. Visiting doctor after doctor, taking test after test, and receiving treatment after treatment can be physically and psychologically exhausting when one is ill day after day. There is enormous stress in getting to these appointments, digesting what the medical professionals have to say, and making treatment decisions. Treatments, depending on the illness, can significantly increase discomfort and life disruption. Chemo therapy for cancer and pain meds for chronic pain can be particularly devastating to the patient, both in body and spirit. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people with cancer and/or chronic pain express concern that the side effects and health risks of the treatment for their disease seem as bad or worse than the illness. It is true that often times, the ‘cure’ is worse than the disease. Add to this mix of torments the nightmare of dealing with medical insurance companies, and serious illness takes on the monstrous dimensions of a really horrible full-time job.
One final word about modern medical care in the US. (Well, three words.) It is sterile, detached, and non-comforting. I have only rarely encountered medical professionals who have provided more than a minimal level of comfort and emotional support. It is easy to feel like a number at most medical facilities. Interaction at a hospital or doctor’s office can not replace selfless compassion from a friend, neighbor, or relitive.
Hopefully by this point you are wondering how you can help. It turns out that the options are varied and not as difficult as you might think. One of the key aspects of many chronic illnesses is that they are life disrupting; meaning that, when one is continuously sick, everyday activities become burdensome or even impossible to perform. As a result, anything that you can do to remove the burden of quotidian chores from the shoulders of an ill person, will ease the stress of the illness in their lives.
Cooking and shopping for groceries are universally recognized as ways to help the ill. Everyone has to eat and the quality of the food we consume has a direct effect on our psychological and physical well being. It’s challenging enough to throw a good meal together when one is healthy. It can be an overwhelming trial for someone who is feels sick much of the time. If you can provide a meal or two, prepared by you or a food delivery service, that can temporarily reduce or even eliminate the inevitable worries about what to eat, and frees up more of the patient’s time for rest and recuperation. The difference this makes in quality of life can be huge.
As mentioned above, one of the greatest annoyances for chronically ill people is getting to and from doctor and treatment appointments. If you can drive a person to their appointment and wait with them, it not only relieves the stress and worry of getting there, it provides the comfort of companionship and a welcome distraction from the impersonal, institutional atmosphere of a doctor’s office, clinic, or hospital. As stated above, being sick can be very isolating; loneliness and a sense of desolation can set in. Offering to spend time with an ill friend or neighbor during those stressful and lonely times can ease the strain that the illness has on them.
General visits help, but don’t be discouraged if you call or visit and the patient does not want to interact. If they just got back from a treatment or a long day of tests and doctor visits or they are having a bad day, they may be tired and just want to be alone. Don’t take it personally or give up. It may be a great time to offer to bring them food or do some errands, like picking up the dry cleaning or gassing up the car, or any number of time consuming life activities that are not fun for any of us, but are often insurmountable hurdles when one is feeling ill.
Another big help is house cleaning. My mom has a friend, who does this as a volunteer. She helps cancer patients by cleaning their homes for free, usually when they are off at a treatment or slew of doctor appointments. I can confirm that after a day of grueling doctor visits or medical treatments, it is really nice to come home to a clean house. It is comforting to slip between the clean sheets of a freshly made bed for a rest. Just being in a space that is a little cleaner and neater imparts energy, peace, and psychological healing.
There a dozens of favors that any person can perform to improve quality of life for a chronically ill person. At the end of this article I provide a couple links to sites with spectacular lists of ideas for folks who want to support the ill. There are dozens of options and nothing is too small. Don’t underestimate the potential of simply showing you care, to empower and comfort a person in the midst of a chronic illness. Just knowing someone is there for them can sweep away the isolation and loneliness that are often nipping at their heels.
Many chronically ill people have caregivers who are in charge of and provide the bulk of their care. This does not mean that your help is not needed. Caregivers also need regular breaks to regroup and recharge. By supporting caregivers you are ensuring they continue to have the energy to provide their patient with the best care possible. Don’t hesitate to ask the main caregivers what you can do to ease their load. With a little effort you can be a great help to them and the patient on whom they focus much of their attention.
If you need a reason for you, don’t forget that doing helpful things for others generally feels good. There is something about helping another person that uplifts the spirits of the helper. Perhaps it is because when we lift up another person, we lift up society and the whole human condition improves. It is powerful stuff and we can each contribute through our individual actions.
It seems to me that these days practically everyone complains that they don’t like what our society has become; they say it is self centered and lacking compassion. I think that one powerful way to change that is for each of us to make a conscious decision to help those in need on a regular basis. I think that if more of us adopt the mindset that we must help the ill (and the poor, aging, and dying), even in the midst of our hectic, healthy lives, then we as a society can change our overall attitude toward those in need.