A chronic illness is one that lasts for a long period of time and typically cannot be cured. It is, however, sometimes treatable and manageable. This means that with some chronic illnesses, you or your loved one can return to everyday activities.
With other chronic illnesses, it may be difficult to participate in everyday activities or the condition may be progressive, getting worse with time.
It’s important to understand that some people with chronic illnesses face invisible obstacles and may look completely healthy on the outside.
Learning to manage the effects of a chronic illness can go a long way toward helping you cope with the diagnosis, the side effects, and the complications, regardless of the degree of severity of your condition.
Legal definitions are often different than everyday meaning. In the case of chronic illness, the legal definition may be used to determine eligibility for certain services.
Legally in the United States, someone who is chronically ill fits these criteria:
- They’re unable to fulfill at least two activities of daily living (bathing, eating, toileting, dressing) for at least 90 days.
- They have a level of disability that is similar to the above criteria.
- They require substantial supervision and assistance in order to protect themselves against health and safety threats because of physical or cognitive impairment.
These definitions can be used to confirm a person is eligible for long-term care insurance, disability insurance, or other care. However, it’s important to note that individual companies, businesses, and even countries may have different definitions and criteria for long-term illness.
Depending on your illness, symptoms, and level of impairment, you may not qualify for some benefits and services when you initially apply or make a request. However, if your condition or the legal requirements change, it may be worth applying again.
Not every person with a chronic illness is recognized as disabled. In some cases, the impairments caused by the illness can reach the level of disability because the illness prevents you from fulfilling daily activities. In others, you may never have physical impairments severe enough to qualify for disability.
Each person’s experience with chronic illness is different, and it can change over time. However, these characteristics are commonly shared among people who are chronically ill:
Long-term condition without a present cure
Treatment and lifestyle changes may help improve symptoms of the chronic illness, but there is no cure for any of the most common chronic illnesses. That means, unfortunately, there is no way to eliminate the symptoms and illness entirely.
Masked chronic pain
For many individuals, chronic illness goes hand in hand with chronic pain. As your pain may not be visible to others, it’s considered “invisible” or “masked.” You may not experience pain in the early stages of the illness, but it may develop.
Chronic, worsening fatigue
Each type of chronic illness causes its own unique set of symptoms, but many share a few common ones, including fatigue and pain. You may tire easily, and this may force you to stick to your body’s own “schedule” and rest when it tells you to.
This may also mean you can’t keep all your social engagements as you once did. It can, in some cases, also make holding down a job difficult.
Requires multiple specialists
To treat the chronic illness and symptoms, you may need to see a variety of healthcare providers. This includes doctors who care for the underlying illness or disease, pain care specialists, and other experts who can help you overcome the symptoms and side effects.
Day-to-day life with a chronic illness may consist of monotonous, unchanging symptoms. That means you may face aches, pains, stiff joints, and other issues day in and day out. These symptoms may also get worse during the day and become quite unbearable by evening.
High risk for depression
Depression may be more common in people with long-term illness. In fact, as many as one-third of individuals with a chronic illness have been diagnosed with depression. Read one person’s story of managing her depression while living with chronic illness.
May progress to functional impairment or disability
Chronic illness persists throughout your lifetime. There is no permanent cure. Over time, the illness and other symptoms related to it may lead to disability or an inability to complete daily activities.
Many diseases may be considered chronic or long term. However, they may not all cause disability or prevent you from completing your daily activities. These are among the most common chronic illnesses:
- colorectal cancer
- chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
- chronic kidney disease
- heart disease
- HIV or AIDS
- lung cancer
- type 2 diabetes
- multiple sclerosis
- cystic fibrosis
- Crohn’s disease
A chronic illness can be difficult on a daily basis. If someone in your life has been diagnosed with a long-term condition or chronic illness, these techniques may be helpful for you and your friend:
What not to say
Many individuals with a chronic illness face a lot of questions. While it may be well-intentioned, it’s better to not quiz them on their symptoms, doctors’ reports, or medical theories. If they wish to volunteer this information, they will.
Instead, carry on conversations that don’t require the reminder of their illness. They will appreciate the break.
How to deal with canceled plans
People with chronic illnesses often experience unavoidable fatigue. That means they may not have the energy for lunches, dinners, or happy hours.
If they call to cancel plans, be understanding. Offer to bring them dinner instead. Empathy can go a long way.
Each day with a chronic illness can be different and difficult. Often, a person living with a chronic illness needs someone who is sympathetic and open, who will listen but not make suggestions or ask questions.
How to offer support
Volunteer to help your friend with tasks that may be draining. This includes picking up groceries or running kids to soccer practice.
You can also encourage them to find support in the form of a therapist or group therapy session. You may even volunteer to attend a group session together. Friends and family also need support in this time.
If you or a loved one have been diagnosed with a chronic illness, you may find these resources helpful:
Mental health provider
A therapist can work with you to learn to cope with the emotional and physical effects of chronic illness.
Talking with and listening to a group of people who share your situation can be helpful. You can learn from their experiences, share your concerns, and know that you have a built-in group of people who will help you face the hardships of chronic illness.
Family and couples counseling
Chronic illness affects more than just the individual. It affects everyone in the family, too. You may see the need for one-on-one therapy with you and a loved one or with your family. Counseling can help everyone talk about and deal with the challenges of the disease.
Chat groups or forums for people living with a chronic illness can be a great place to seek information. Like support groups, many of these people have lived with a chronic illness and can offer guidance, support, and empathy.
Life with a chronic illness can be challenging. The physical and emotional aspects can take a serious toll.
However, with the help of healthcare providers and your friends and family, you may be able to find a treatment plan and lifestyle changes that make day-to-day life more comfortable and easier.