Accept that you’re in uncharted territory :
As we grow older, more of our friends will become ill. Rates of chronic disease in the U.S. Are skyrocketing: 133 million Americans have at least one chronic condition, a number that’s predicted to rise 37 percent by 2030. And the odds that someone you know will come down with a serious condition such as breast cancer or heart disease rise significantly after the person passes age 50.
Many women who are ill prefer to be helped by friends rather than family members. In a national sample, almost 20 percent of women said that if they were sick, their first choice for intimate help – bathing, dressing, toileting – would be a close female friend. “For many women, there friends are really their closest connections, perhaps especially for single women,” explains health sociologist Emerson Smith, PhD, a clinical research professor at the University of South Carolina School of Medicine in Columbia.
If you do take on a care giving role, prepare to enter a world with no obvious road maps “You may see dramatic changes in your friend’s personality,” says Irene S. Levine, PhD, professor of psychiatry at New York University School of Medicine and author of best friends forever: Surviving a breakup. Some people become less talkative when they fall sick, others more communicative. Some go into super-coping mode, while others may catastrophize. “A friend who’s ill may express herself with a harshness or candor or emotionality that you’ve never seen her display before,” says Levine. “We have to remind ourselves that it may well be because she cant demonstrate those raw feelings to any other friend, perhaps not even to her family.”
Rosalind Joffe, a chronic-illness career coach and author of Women, Work and Autoimmune Disease, suggests responding to a friend’s pain with empathy, by saying perhaps, “That sounds tough. I am really sorry, and I want to understand more.” What you want to avoid is rushing to say something that may seem insensitive, such as telling your friend to have a positive attitude.
What Not To Say :
We often rush into a friend’s home or hospital room and, without taking time to think, offer up boilerplate platitudes to fill the awkward silence. Here are some you should really try to avoid, according to several experts.
“I KNOW HOW YOU FEEL” The truth is, you probably don’t, says New York University Psychologist Irene S Levine, Author of Best Friends Forever. This sort of remark makes it clear, she explains, that “You haven’t bothered to reach deeper, toward real empathy; you aren’t seeing the pacient for who she really is right now.”
“BUT YOU DON’T LOOK SICK” This isn’t what a patient likes to hear. She may think that means you believe she is not really sick and may end up feeling that she hasn’t been heard. How much nicer to hear a simple, “It is so good to see you” or “How are you feeling today?” says Rosalind Joffe, a career coach who has MS.
“YOU HAVE TO THINK POSITIVE” It’s frustrating to hear platitudes such as “It’s all about attitude!” – comments that sound as if the sick friend simply lacks the will power to get well. Instead, says Elizabeth Kaplan, who has helped several ill friends, “you can acknowledge to a friend that her disease really sucks, that it is unfair.”
Sites that can help you provide help: Illness Quickly derails the daily activities of life – food shopping, housecleaning, child care – but a number of websites let friends lighten the family’s load.
Meal Train (mealtrain.com) offers a shared calander that allows communities to organize meals for families coping with illness.
Lotsa helping hands (lotsahelpinghands.com) provides ways to organize support for the caregiver and coordinate activities, from preparing meals to dog walking. For keeping everyone informed about the patient’s progress, Caring Bridge (caringbridge.org) allows you to create a personalized, private social-networking site.
MORE. APRIL 2014