ew things are more heartbreaking than knowing someone you love is facing a serious illness. Even when you’re closely connected, it can feel awkward or intrusive to ask delicate questions. The person who gets sick has their life upended.A chronic or serious illness is not only life-altering, it can also upset the balance in our relationships. After all, one person suddenly requires more support and extra concern. That can place a burden on relationships and cause them to feel off-kilter.
But research shows that social support during an illness has a big influence on better health outcomes. In one National Library of Medicine study on type 2 diabetes, researchers found that, “Higher levels of social support are associated with improved clinical outcomes.” This can include reduced symptoms, as well as healthier lifestyle choices in the future.
Social support, according to the study, can come from many places. Family, friends, and healthcare professionals can all contribute in helping someone feel they are accepted, cared for, and assisted. Types of support outlined in the study include:
- Emotional support in the form of warmth and nurturing
- Tangible support such as offering financial help or material goods
- Informational support, like advice and guidance
- Companionship, including shared activities
The study also indicates that increased social support leads to overall better health, fewer psychological issues, and speedier healing from chronic disease, injury, and illness.
In his first-person essay on Heart-Failure.net, Bouba Diemé describes how his illness affected his own relationships. Illness, he says, can isolate you from your social circle. Even close friends may not understand your new life. “Friendship changes when you get sick, and that can hurt,” says Diemé.
With a close friend, a well-timed pep talk can be particularly valuable, Diemé says. He shared an email from one such friend who took the time to acknowledge his struggle.
“It’s a lot of stuff you have got on you over there. I can’t imagine the patience that it requires. But, of course, it’s a miracle that you are here, so that’s the biggest thing. That’s the most important thing. You’ve got a lot of life ahead of you.”
Writing for Psychology Today, positive psychology coach and author Karen Riddell shares simple suggestions collected from working with women going through illness.
- Start with creature comforts. Soft blankets, comfy pajamas, and pretty slippers are among the items she suggests to assist in cheering a friend’s room.
- Dole out some distractions. Create a curated playlist of her go-to tunes. Or stock a basket with magazines, crosswords, craft kits, art supplies, and puzzles.
- Take a drive. Depending on energy levels and mobility, taking your friend on a little road trip can provide a needed change of scenery.
- Practical help is almost always appreciated. Making a grocery run, doing the dishes, watering the plants, or walking the dog are examples of small efforts that mean a lot.
When in doubt, says Riddell, heed what feels like the appropriate offer of support. “Sometimes your relationship is close enough that taking the initiative to do things that clearly need to be done is comfortable. Other times the best approach is to say, ‘I have a couple of hours, what can I do that would be helpful?’”
Your good intentions are really all that matters.