By Robert M. Oliva, ND, LMSW


Having a loved one diagnosed with a serious chronic illness can have far-reaching effects on the patient and on every member of the caregiver’s family. A loved one’s illness can descend like a tidal wave filled with shock, anger, fear, resentment, worry, and frustration.

The ill family member may be emotionally shocked at the diagnosis and experience shame, fear, guilt, or intense denial. Grief is very commonly experienced by the newly diagnosed. This may coincide with a loss of physical mobility, depression, and a loss of personal confidence and integrity. Relationships may suffer due to both physical incapacity and emotional distress. The sufferer may no longer be able to participate in the normal network of friends and activities that were taken for granted prior to the diagnosis. If negative life events, stresses, and depression preceded the diagnosis, the chances of more severe depression occurring are very high.

The same may be said for caregivers and their families. When a family member is ill the entire family suffers. The caregiver and family can become physically and mentally exhausted, have bouts of sadness and helplessness, experience lowered immunity to colds and flu, become impatient with the ill family member and with each other. Family relationships may falter, children may exhibit problem behaviors, and frustrations with spouses may become damaging.


A Personal Note

Recently, I received a phone call from my mom’s neighbor. She let me know that mom had fallen and been taken to the hospital. The call started a two-month odyssey for me and my wife. Since my mom lives alone in another state, other family members, for various reasons, were unable to make the trip.

I was flooded with questions as to the severity of the fall, what would it mean for her ability to be independent, would she recover, and what would it mean for us. As it turns out, we had to spend two months as 24/7 caregivers in another state having left behind our family and friends.

When we arrived, my mom was much weaker and dependent than I had imagined. Shopping had to be done, doctors’ visits made, occupational and physical therapy instituted, meals prepared, emotional support given along with the uncertainty as to whether mom would once again be independent.

Even connecting with our absent family members and friends demanded establishing a network of communications that enabled all to keep informed and be supportive.


Coping with Chronic Illness

Coping with chronic illness is a reciprocal endeavor for every member of the family. The ill person, the caregiver, and the caregiver family form an interlocking system that must redefine itself to meet the challenge.

When navigating the consequences of a diagnosis, the following suggestions may prove helpful for all involved:

  • Confront the illness. Facing the diagnosis is the best long-term strategy for the person diagnosed as well as for the caregivers. Denial, as much as it is tempting, does not work.


  • Seek out social support. Social support can help everyone cope with the challenge of chronic illness. Creating a strong social network that is dependable makes a world of difference when the going gets tough. A haphazard approach and one isolated from necessary support structures, groups, and friends can lead to greater stress, depression, and burnout. Communicating with support networks can help the family more effectively address the circumstances it faces as the illness progresses.


  • Develop a plan of action. Communication with family, friends, physicians, social workers, and support personnel such as physical and occupational therapists enables the illness to be faced actively. Getting to know what to expect physically and emotionally from the disease process offers a greater sense of control.


  • Minimize unnecessary obligations. Stick with what you can handle.


  • Seek professional help. Managing a medical diagnosis can be hard on everyone. Psychological assistance can be accessed through the APA’s Psychologist Locator.



The diagnosis of a chronic illness reverberates throughout the family. By accepting chronic disease for what it is, there may be less need to hide our fears and apprehensions. Through shared effort, greater familial resilience and patience may strengthen tattered bonds. Accepting the pain and uncertainty of illness may kindle a greater capacity to move forward. Hopefully, this leads to less stress and conflict, while providing patient and family the emotional sustenance needed during trying times.

Chronic illness is never easy. Sharing the struggle together may help fashion the hope that carries us through.



Dr. Robert M. Oliva is a New York State licensed Master Social Worker, a traditional Naturopath, a certified Holistic Health Practitioner and a health and fitness writer. He is a member of the American Naturopathic Medical Association, the American Association of Drugless Practitioners and the National Association of Social Workers. Dr. Oliva is a former Adjunct Assistant Professor of Sociology at Brooklyn College (CUNY). He can be contacted at: