Crutches, Coffee and Caregiving - How to support a loved one through illness

Crutches, Coffee and Caregiving - How to support a loved one through illness

I am sure that I mentioned in this blog before that one of the most life changing experiences I've had was training as a health coach. As a health care provider for many years, and as a patient, I often feel as if something was missing in treatment provision, and I liked health coaching as something which I felt could fill a critical gap in healthcare. If I had to describe what I felt like the role of a health coach was based on my training, and how I would see myself practicing (if I ever thought I would practice) was to provide practical support to patients (particularly in regard to diet and lifestyle) to assist with transformation (change) in lifestyle to improve health and cope with illness. I know that many of the coaches who trained with me have taken on other roles - including advocacy, writing, further training, teaching etc so I know that the role can be diverse but for me that was the simplest description. 

My feelings about healthcare are mixed. I have been in the system as a patient for both acute and ongoing conditions, and I have supported close relatives who have had illness ranging from very common conditions such as diabetes and high blood pressure, to cancer. I believe in the importance of dietary and lifestyle factors such as sleep and stress management as critically important in health and healthcare, but as someone who works with patients daily, I also understand the limitations of that appointment which in many places can be 7-10 minutes for the doctor to diagnose, advise treatment and make recommendations. In addition to health coaches, I think nurses and nurse practitioners are helpful in providing support as well as other providers such as dieticians, physiotherapists, podiatrists etc and a team approach is best to tackle these things. But in many of the chronic conditions, often it is what patients do at home (diet and lifestyle) that matter in management of illness and maintenance of health. And sometimes I feel like this is the place which may get ignored. Patients vary in their understanding of instructions given, and coming from different backgrounds and cultures as well as having different experiences, I have seen first hand how advice can be misinterpreted, causing treatment to be delayed, or to be less than effective. In addition - it is hard to make lifestyle changes that are lasting, and there is so much information online that is conflicting that sometimes patients are paralysed instead of taking action. However, homecare is often critical, and here are some tips I would give to anyone supporting a family member based on my training and experience both professional and personal.

1. Meet people where they are. While I can tell my patients what is ideal behavior, it is also important to meet persons where they are, especially if they aren't ready for massive change. It is better if they can make small changes to work towards long term maintenance than if they do nothing at all. As a professional I have so much information that if I am not careful I can overload the patient and they end up feeling overwhelmed and deflated which may lead to no change at all. 

2. Remember compassion. So even when we ourselves have made changes and seen the improvement that these changes can bring, we need to support with compassion and patience. It is easy to beat people over the head with our knowledge, but it can leave persons feeling bad about themselves and this isn't often the best backdrop for behavior change. One thing I found personally is that sometimes the suggested changes can be overwhelming and inherently stressful. If someone makes a commitment to change then it may be helpful to assist with accountability, but it is important to give support, as opposed to pressuring them to move way faster than they feel able to. This goes back to the first point - meet them where they are.

3. Gain clarity. Sometimes the thing that reduces the effectiveness of treatment and therapy is a lack of understanding. A family member recently was given the following advice - eat a balanced diet. Sounds simple enough... But what does it look like in practical terms? On a plate? There are many varying opinions on this, and in addition, with bio-individuality, one man's meat truly is another man's poison. The best idea is to gain clarity on what is necessary and what is not advised, in order to get a clear picture of how to proceed. 

4. Remember the basics. Sleep. Water. Community. It is harder to do the right things when sleep deprived or dehydrated. These basic and sometimes lynchpin habits can determine our mood and energy levels, and can be huge factors in whether we can make lifestyle changes and/or comply with the advice of medical professionals. We need to remember this when we are assisting our loved ones. As for community - it can also be hard to do the right things when a person feels isolated and lonely. I feel like sometimes the biggest part of support is moral support and on a personal note - sometimes it's more important to be there than it is to be right. I would love my relative to eat right, exercise, get enough sleep and water - along with everything else in life. Heck - I would like to do those things myself! But I also want to spend quality time with them, not spend that time nagging them to make changes that they are not ready to make. 

4. Laugh and stay positive. Seems like a strange tip? Having a positive attitude towards treatment goes a lot further than we realize. This isn't a peer reviewed article but just some practical advice from me, but I have also read many studies which show that a positive and hopeful attitude leads to a better outcome. And more importantly I have seen it for myself.

One of the things I have seen time and time again is that no one does things before they are ready, and you cannot do more for someone than they are prepared to do for themselves. It leaves me sometimes questioning how I can best support my patients and those I care about. And as a professional as well as a patient and a concerned relative and friend I have found that when I keep the tips above in mind, the road to recovery can be navigated and wellbeing improved for all involved.

I send you big love from my dining table (yes I have graduated off the couh!!!)

PS. The current situation means I have not been out and about taking photos, so here is another Scottish throwback.