Supporting a Loved One Through a Serious Diagnosis
UT Health Austin social workers share insights on how to effectively support your loved one throughout their health journey
Reviewed by: Alyssa Aguirre, MSW, LCSW-S, and Jillian Y. Bissar, MSSW, LCSW-S
Written by: Lauren Schneider
For many, caregiving is a common aspect of life. According to data collected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 1 in 5 Americans adults reported caring for a friend or family member with a health issue in the past 30 days.
As common as caregiving may be, when a loved one receives a serious diagnosis, the path forward may still feel like navigating uncharted territory. Whether you have been designated as your loved one’s primary caregiver or are simply trying to be a supportive friend, knowing the right words to say and actions to take can be difficult.
“At UT Health Austin, social workers guide patients and their loved ones through the social and emotional challenges that accompany their health journey,” says Jillian Bissar, MSSW, LCSW-S, a licensed clinical social worker in UT Health Austin’s Livestrong Cancer Institutes and a member of UT Health Austin’s Integrated Behavioral Health care team. “We recognize that family members and friends can make a significant difference in the health outcomes of their loved ones who are navigating a serious illness.”
<br>Keep an Open Mind
When someone close to you is diagnosed with a serious illness, it may seem logical to treat them based on how you would hope to be treated under those circumstances. However, it is important not to make assumptions about your loved one’s preferences.
“There is no need to wait for a friend or family member to become sick to begin a conversation around their care,” shares Bissar “Oftentimes, we find that individuals do not share their care preferences with their close friends or family until after they get sick, and it can be disheartening for patients when their loved ones do not show up for them in the way they expected.”
These misunderstandings are especially pronounced when talking to a loved one about what they are going through. “When friends and family don’t know how to address their loved ones, they often default to comments that make themselves feel better but do not necessarily help the patient,” notes Bissar.
“Friends and family may also assume it is most polite to tiptoe around their loved one’s situation, which leads patients to feel they are afraid to talk with them about their diagnosis and can further isolate the patient,” adds Alyssa Aguirre, MSW, LCSW-S, a licensed clinical social worker in UT Health Austin’s Comprehensive Memory Center within the Mulva Clinic for the Neurosciences and a member of the Integrated Behavioral Health care team. “Always ask your loved one if and how they want to talk about their condition.”
“A person with a serious illness may prefer to keep some details of their condition private from others,” continues Aguirre. “Your loved one may choose to disclose details of their condition to friends and family at different times and might wish to avoid sharing certain aspects of their journey with specific individuals.”
While respecting your loved one’s privacy, you can be honest about the aspects of their condition they have allowed you to share. This straightforward approach is especially helpful when speaking to young children.
“Kids are very concrete thinkers, so it’s important to use factual and precise language,” explains Bissar. “If you simply say their loved one is sick, a child may assume all illnesses will manifest in a similar way. This generalization can make their own health issues, even small colds, appear frightening to them.”
Explore caregiver counseling services for family caregivers of people living with dementia or mild cognitive impairment.
<br>Stay in Touch
Some of the most common misconceptions people have about caring for someone in their life involve maintaining connections with their loved one. For instance, some assume that their loved one can no longer participate in regular social activities.
“Keep inviting your loved one to gatherings,” recommends Bissar. “Let them know that if they are able to join, you would like for them to be included.”
Additionally, many people interpret a lack of communication from their loved one as a sign that they do not wish to be bothered and become hesitant to reach out. “People with a serious or chronic illness are navigating a lot of new medical and personal needs and may have not the bandwidth to reach out to their family and friends,” explains Aguirre.
“Patients sometimes feel that close friends and family in their life disappear after their diagnosis,” adds Aguirre. “A simple text or call can be a powerful affirmation that you are there for your loved one.”
Offer Tangible Assistance
“Managing a chronic or advanced illness can consume a lot of time and energy that would otherwise be spent on routine activities,” shares Bissar. “One of the most effective ways to care for someone with a serious illness is to offer them assistance with daily tasks.”
As many people often struggle to ask for help for fear of being a burden, an open-ended offer of assistance may overwhelm your loved one. “The more specific you are in your offer, the better,” encourages Bissar. “Even if your loved one declines your offer, it may help them begin thinking about what types of assistance they may need.”
Ways you can support your loved one include:
- Caring for pets
- Cleaning or hiring a housekeeper
- Cooking meals or organizing a meal train
- Helping with childcare
- Providing transportation
- Running errands
A person with a serious diagnosis may still be willing and able to perform many of their daily activities. “Make sure your loved one is as involved in their own life as they can be at every stage while still offering the support they need,” advises Bissar.
“Sometimes, a person with a serious illness and their caregiver can become overwhelmed by the number of people trying to help, and organizing these efforts may become another task for them to juggle,” warns Bissar. “Coordinating care activities with the other family and friends of your loved one can help lighten the load.”
<br>Take Care of Your Own Needs
Building a strong support network around yourself and your loved one can help prevent undue stress for caregivers. “A lot of caregivers are burning the candle at both ends, which can lead to burnout,” cautions Bissar.
In addition to the stress of managing your loved one’s care, uncertainty about their future can also take a toll on your mental well-being. Making space for these difficult feelings can help you process them in a healthy way.
“People can get stuck in a mindset of toxic positivity where there is no room for uncomfortable emotions,” says Bissar. “While it is important to remain hopeful, you should be honest with yourself about the unknowns that lie ahead.”
“There are many ways to get the help you need,” adds Aguirre. “People often find talking to a counselor helpful, and you can connect with others who are caring for a loved one in a support group.”
<br>Explore Available Resources
<br>AGE of Central Texas
American Cancer Society
Family Caregiver Alliance
Texas Department of State Health Services
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
Wonders and Worries
- Illness Discussion Resources (for parents discussing a serious illness in the family with their child)
If you are receiving care at UT Health Austin, you can ask to speak with a social worker.